Health & Family

Column: Let’s talk about whether Harvard should forgive Kyle Kashuv’s youthful mistakes. Then let’s talk about whether black kids are forgiven for theirs.

Not getting into Harvard is not the end of Kyle Kashuv's life.

Kashuv is the Parkland school shooting survivor who was admitted to Harvard University. His offer was revoked after leaked documents showed him using anti-Semitic and racist slurs, including the N-word, and saying all Jewish people should be killed, in texts, Skype conversations and Google documents when he was 16.

He apologized to the admissions dean, William Fitzsimmons. He distanced himself from the language. "I see the world through different eyes and am embarrassed by the petty, flippant kid represented in those screenshots," he wrote in an apology, which he posted on Twitter.

When Harvard rescinded his admission anyway, many people were outraged, arguing that youthful mistakes shouldn't follow us into adulthood. In The Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan says the decision "illustrates Harvard's intellectual rot." In The New York Times, David Brooks says Harvard's decision reflects "a misunderstanding of how moral character develops."

"In a sin-drenched world it's precisely through the sins and the ensuing repentance that moral formation happens," Brooks writes. "That's why we try not to judge people by what they did in their worst moment, but rather by how they respond to their worst moment. That's why we are forgiving of 16-year-olds, because they haven't disgraced themselves enough to have earned maturity."

Here is where I hope we can pause and have an honest discussion.

We live in a country in which young people of color are threatened with death, or outright killed, for their mistakes, even perceived mistakes.

Maybe you saw the video earlier this month of Phoenix police officers drawing their guns on a family whose 4-year-old daughter allegedly took a doll from a Family Dollar Store.

You probably know the story of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old who was fatally shot by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Whispers of Martin's past indiscretions – he skipped school, he had a trace amount of THC, the chemical linked to pot, in his system – started to circulate, as if his death would be justified had he made a few mistakes.

"Trayvon was the victim in this case," his father, Tracy Martin, said to NPR. "They tried to make him the villain in this case."

Maybe you remember Brennan Walker, the 14-year-old black boy from Michigan who was chased and shot at by a man whose door he knocked on, asking for directions. Brennan's mistake? He overslept and missed his school bus, and he didn't know his way to school.

By now you know the story of Laquan McDonald, 17, shot 16 times and killed while walking away from police after failing to respond to their commands.

Kashuv will likely grow into a successful, productive, thoughtful adult. Even without a Harvard education. I hope, for his sake and ours, he does. The world doesn't need another person whose intellectual and moral maturity peaked in high school.

But if we're going to use his life as a conversation starter, if we're going to talk about forgiving children for their youthful indiscretions, about allowing moral formation to happen, about leaving space and time for maturity to develop, we need to talk about the role that race plays in our collective willingness to offer that grace. We need to include Trayvon Martin in those conversations. We need to include Laquan McDonald in those conversations. We need to include Brennan Walker in those conversations.

Otherwise they're disingenuous. Otherwise the outrage is lopsided and riddled with blind spots. And that gets us nowhere.

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(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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