March 16, former Harvard student Brittany Smith was indicted for her alleged involvement
in a campus shooting that left a man dead.
was charged with being an accessory after the fact in the May 2009
murder of 21-year old Justin Cosby. Specifically, Smith is accused
of participating in a drug deal gone bad, of giving three New York
men—including her boyfriend—access to her Harvard ID swipe card,
which gained them access to her Kirkland House dorm. The men allegedly
robbed and shot Cosby, who is linked to the campus drug trade and
died the next day. Smith allegedly hid the murder weapon, helped
the men escape, and lied to a grand jury. In other words, she’s
in a heap of trouble. And while the accused are innocent until proven
guilty, she deserves little of your sympathy if all of this is true.
But that doesn’t mean that we cannot mourn ruined lives, and the
loss that is associated with broken dreams unfulfilled expectations.
and another Harvard student linked to the incident, Chanequa Campbell,
were banished from the college and not allowed to graduate. Campbell,
who has not been charged, came short of accusing Harvard of racism. “The honest answer to that is
that I’m black and I’m poor and I’m from New York and I walk a certain
way and I keep my clothes a certain way,” Campbell told the Boston
Globe, in response to a question about Harvard’s reason for ordering
her to leave. “It’s something that labels me as different from everyone
be sure, Campbell and Smith did not receive the support from black
folks on campus that Professor Henry Louis Gates enjoyed after his
incident. Of course, I speak of Gates’ altercation with a Cambridge
police officer as the scholar tried to enter his home. But then
again, Gates had done nothing wrong except “break into” his own
house while black. The students’ alleged association with the campus
drug trade, and their apparent involvement in the incident in question,
resulted in the murder of a young man on campus. It is not my goal
to prosecute this case in this commentary, nor can I assess whether
race played any role in this case. But I do know that cries of
racism ring hollow here. Drugs are no stranger to Harvard or any
other university, and while Harvard students have experimented with
drugs for years, never did it result in a drug-related murder.
lesson learned here is to mind the company you keep. This goes
for African American students, and anyone else for that matter.
fall from grace of these two Harvard students, these young black
women with faded promise, reminds me of Edmund Perry. In
1985, 17-year old Perry, a Harlem native and then-recent graduate
of Phillips Exeter Academy who was about to enroll in Stanford,
was shot to death by a plainclothes police officer. Witnesses
claimed Perry and his brother, a Cornell engineering student, tried
to mug the officer. It just so happens that Eddie, who decried
his prep school's racism and “adopted a street-savvy swagger to
mask his own insecurities”, was dealing drugs
at Exeter. White folk with something other than good intentions
tried to use this incident to prove the argument that, you can dust
them off, dress them up and school them as you may, but “these”
people are beyond our help.
in 1994, 24 year old Kemba Smith pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute
crack, and was sentenced to 24.5 years. Her case was a true
travesty, and put the spotlight on America’s harsh, draconian and
disproportionate drug sentencing laws. Her true crime was having
an abusive drug dealer boyfriend, a guy she met as a student at
Hampton University in Virginia. Smith described herself as
someone who grew up in a sheltered middle-class existence, and hung
out with the wrong crowd at school. Fortunately President Clinton
pardoned her after she served six years, and she can use her second
chance in life to teach others.
cases are blatantly vivid reminders that young people,
in this case African-American, lead fragile lives. Even for
those who appear to be gliding on a road to success, that road is
precarious and fraught with danger. There are negative influences
and the corrosive effects of peer pressure. Black kids are
ridiculed by their classmates for trying to act white, as if being
intelligent, scholarly and gifted are incompatible (rather than
synonymous) with blackness. College-bound students of color
have a hard time of it, often with little support even from family,
and incurring the resentment of a community short on opportunities.
Some young people cannot reconcile their personal aspirations with
their desire to “keep it real” and stay true to their community.
Perhaps they can’t take the pressure of navigating two worlds, and
the culture shock it entails. Perhaps in this materialistic society,
they lack grounding, whether social, political or spiritual, and
they eke out an existence feeding on media stereotypes. Maybe we
are all to blame for not properly imbuing children with more character-building,
positive influences. Maybe they just aren’t comfortable living
in their own black skin.
is not to make excuses for those who seem to have so much, yet waste
it all. After all, many people have soared high with much less
to work with, while others seem to squander their opportunities
and fall so far, so hard and so fast. Certainly it is not as simple
as a case of black youth gone bad, of rotten criminals getting what
they deserve. Nor is it as simple as a case of racial victimization.
I don’t think the civil rights movement fought for the right of
black students to get caught up in the campus drug game, with dead
bodies strewn along their path. But one thing is certain: we must
learn from the Chanequa Campbells, the Brittany Smiths, the Kemba
Smiths and the Edmund Perrys. We must learn what can go wrong when
you are young, gifted and black.
Executive Editor, David A. Love, JD is a journalist and human rights
advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to The Huffington
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times
and Philadelphia Independent
Media Center. He also blogs at davidalove.com,
and Open Salon.
to contact Mr. Love.