Skip to main content

Ralph Nader Draws More Controversy on Race

The five-time presidential candidate, who has in the past called for less political correctness, aligned with an anti-affirmative action advocate in a failed bid for Harvard University board seats.

By Elena Gooray


Ralph Nader. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Public interest crusader and five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader recently lost another election — this time, for a spot on Harvard University’s board of overseers.

In a campaign entitled “Free/Fair Harvard,” Nader joined a slate of four other candidates to pursue the five open spots on the university’s board, elected by Harvard degree holders to steer the university. The Free/Fair Harvard group made its top goals abolishing tuition and increasing admissions transparency for all Harvard undergraduates—both measures meant to combat class privilege in higher education and address what they see as a disconnect between Harvard’s large financial endowment and its high tuition. But Free/Fair Harvard came up short, failing to win any spots in election results announced last month.

Leading up to the vote, some Harvard alumni expressedconcern that Nader’s involvement in Free/Fair Harvard had bound him to a movement primarily bent on ending the long-embattled policy of affirmative action. Free/Fair Harvard Founder (and one-time chairman of a financial services software company)Ron Unz has built a political reputation by pushing through anti-bilingual education measures in California and Massachusetts, and decrying race-based admission policies. Unz also ran for a California seat in the United States Senate, which he lost yesterday.

More than his policies, it was Unz’s past financial contributions that recently drew the most scrutiny from the Harvard community: He’s donated money to a recognized white nationalist website and a researcher who proposed that homosexuality is an infectious disease. (Unz has defended such choices as support for “alternative media,” noting that he has funded other individuals with whom he does not always agree, including Bernie Sanders.)

Though Nader has voiced his commitment to affirmative action, his broader engagement with race issues — or lack thereof — has repeatedly come under fire.

These politics, Nader supporters argue, do not align with Nader’s stated commitment to social justice. Nader, for his part, explained his Fair/Free Harvard alliance to Politico as necessary to improving college admissions: “You just take an issue at a time as long as it doesn’t compromise you on your issue,” he said.

The Free/Fair Harvard website explicitly criticizes current affirmative action policies for focusing on race rather than class differences. The group also claims such policies explicitly harm Asian Americans, a view that’s been around since a 2009 report suggested that Asian Americans need higher SAT scores and grade point averages for college admission compared to any other ethnic group.

In May of 2015, over 60 Asian-American groups nationwide submitted a complaint accusing Harvard of discriminatory admissions processes. The Department of Education dismissed the complaint the following July. (The researcher behind the 2009 findings, Princeton University’s Thomas Espenshade, has cautioned against drawing big conclusions from just one data set.)

Last month, a larger Asian-American coalition filed civil rights complaints against Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth College. And the Supreme Court still has on its docket a suit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white student denied entry to the University of Texas because of what she alleges are unfair race-based admissions policies. A ruling against the university could strike a major blow against standing affirmative action policies.

Though Nader has voiced his commitment to affirmative action, his broader engagement with race issues — or lackthereof — has repeatedly come under fire. Running for president as an independent candidate in 2008, Nader experienced backlash for calling his then-rival Barack Obama an “Uncle Tom,” accusing Obama of neglecting poor Americans and racial minorities. And in an interview for Pacific Standard’s coming July/August print issue, Nader waded into a heated identity debate: whether “political correctness” has overrun public discourse in the United States.

Speaking with journalist Lydia DePillis, Nader attributed the appeal of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to white male workers who feel “verbally repressed”:

A lot of these people grew up on ethnic jokes, which are totally taboo now. Do you know, Lydia, there are no ethnic-joke books in bookstores anymore? … There were Negro-joke books, Jewish-joke books, Polish-joke books, Italian-joke books. They used ethnic jokes to reduce tension in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. And they’d laugh at each other’s jokes and hurl another one. But it still flows through ethnic America, you know. There are hundreds of things that people would like to say. So here’s this guy — he doubles down on them, he blows their minds. So that’s the first way he got their attention.

Nader then agreed with Trump’s take that Americans have fallen prey to excessive political correctness:

You see it on campuses — what is it called, trigger warnings? It’s gotten absurd. I mean, you repress people, you engage in anger, and what you do is turn people into skins that are blistered by moonbeams. Young men now are far too sensitive because they’ve never been in a draft. They’ve never had a sergeant say, “Hit the ground and do 50 push-ups and I don’t care if there’s mud there.”

This stance aligns with Nader’s criticisms of campus reactions against microaggressions — everyday behaviors that may contribute to hostile environments for cultural minorities.

Microaggressions remain a flashpoint for college diversity debates, reflecting universities’ status as primary fighting grounds for tackling messy racial and economic disparities. Now, those grounds have drawn in one of America’s best-known public advocates.