Category: Civil Rights

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Reviewing Dale Carpenter’s The Story of Lawrence v. Texas

Professor Marc Spindelman published an insightful review of Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas in the Michigan Law Review. Lawrence v. Texas was indeed a great civil rights victory for lesbian and gay rights. In his review, Professor Spindelman explores the broader implications of Lawrence for equality along the often-intersecting lines of gender, class, and race.

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Can We Lean Anything from Brazil about Remediating the Lingering Consequences of Racial Discrimination?

This post marks the end of my guest appearance on Concurring Opinions, and as usual, I’ve enjoyed my run.

I sometimes show the 2007 documentary Brazil in Black and White in my Law in Film seminar to give my students some exposure to how other racialized countries handle the difficult business of mediating the lingering consequences of slavery and de jure race discrimination. I also have them read Tanya K. Hernandez, 2005 article To Be Brown in Brazil: Education & Segregation Latin American Style. Her recent book, Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response (Cambridge Univ. Press, Oct. 2012), contains an even more nuanced discussion.

Like the United States, affirmative action in Brazil is a controversial issue. I remember having a deja vu like experience when I visited the country in 2007 and heard some of the discussions. Opponents’ arguments sounded very much like the arguments I had heard in the U.S. years earlier. But there are important differences between the two countries. Notions of race are far more complex and confusing in Brazil as the documentary and a recent article in The Economist explain. Further, unlike the United States public universities in Brazil are more prestigious than private schools. In addition, “Brazil’s racial preferences differ from America’s in that they are narrowly aimed at preventing a tiny elite from scooping a grossly disproportionate share of taxpayer-funded university places. Privately-educated (ie, well-off) blacks do not get a leg-up in university admissions.”

The notion of racial quotas never went over well in the United States, and most observers believe that our current weak form of affirmative action, most apparent in university admissions, is on its last leg. As we anxiously waited this term to see what the Supremes will do with the latest case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court agreed last month to hear another higher education affirmative action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The issue in that case is “whether Michigan voters in 2006 had the legal right to bar the state’s public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions.” Briefs in the case can be found on SCOTUSblog. Whatever the outcome in Fisher, it seems clear that the ongoing controversy over affirmative action in higher education will not be resolved this term. Read More

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Cynthia Lee on Trayvon Martin, Self-Defense, Implicit Bias, and Making Race Salient

I attended a fantastic colloquium talk yesterday at which Cynthia Lee (GW) presented on her forthcoming article about the Trayvon Martin case. (The TJSL colloquium committee, including my colleagues Alex Kreit and Meera Deo, have done a fantastic job of bringing speakers to campus.) Professor Lee drew on her own prior work as well as groundbreaking new research, and used the Martin case as a lens:

This Article uses the Trayvon Martin shooting to examine the operation of implicit racial bias in cases involving claims of self-defense. Recent research on race salience by Samuel Sommers and Phoebe Ellsworth suggests that individuals are more likely to overcome their implicit biases if race is made salient than if race is simply a background factor, known but not highlighted. Sommers and Ellsworth demonstrate through empirical research that making race salient, or calling attention to the relevance of race in a given situation, encourages individuals to suppress what would otherwise be automatic stereotypic congruent responses in favor of acting in a more egalitarian manner. Building on these insights, Professor Lee suggests that in the run of the mill case, when an individual claims he shot a young Black male in self-defense, the police, the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury are likely to find reasonable the individual’s claim that he felt he was being threatened by the young Black male unless mechanisms are in place to make the operation of racial stereotypes in the creation of fear salient. In the Trayvon Martin case, race was made salient by the huge public outcry over the Sanford Police Department’s failure to arrest Zimmerman and extensive media coverage. Most criminal cases, however, do not receive the kind of media attention received by the Trayvon Martin case. In most interracial criminal cases, race is a background factor but generally is not something either party tries to highlight. Professor Lee concludes with some suggestions as to how prosecutors and defense attorneys concerned about the operation of implicit racial bias can make race salient in the criminal courtroom.

Professor Lee’s previous scholarship has explored in some detail the ways in which racial biases can infect verdicts, especially in areas like self-defense where subjective intent can be important. Her article Race and Self-Defense is foundational, and I assign it every year in my Critical Race Theory class (along with other important work in this area, like Paul Butler‘s writings on jury nullification and on mass incarceration). It was a delight to hear Professor Lee present about her new work, and I’ll absolutely be using this as I teach in the fall. And Professor’s Lee’s talk illustrated one silver lining to the Trayvon Martin case: The intense media scrutiny focused public attention on possible racial biases, and this created a public awareness which may ultimately lead to a more just criminal justice system.

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“Brain Spyware”

As if we don’t have enough to worry about, now there’s spyware for your brain.  Or, there could be.  Researchers at Oxford, Geneva, and Berkeley have created a proof of concept for using commercially available brain-computer interfaces to discover private facts about today’s gamers. Read More

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Fortune’s Bones: Is There Dignity after Death?

In 1995 Gunther von Hagens presented his Body Worlds exhibit, described as a collection of real human bodies that have been “plastinated” to prevent their decay and make them more malleable. Some of these plastinated bodies were cut open to reveal their inner organs and then positioned in lifelike poses. The exhibit toured the world and was wildly popular.

Body Worlds also generated some criticism. Canadian social scientist, Lawrence Burns, argued that “some aspects of the exhibit violated human dignity.” (7(4): 12-23 Amer. J. Bioethics 2007)  Although touted as an educational experience Burns and others worried that the bodies were being used as “resources to make money from the voyeurism of the general public.” A key concern was that the bodies were denied burial and that this was a dignitary affront. Burns conceded, however, that the concept of human dignity as applied to deceased individuals is unclear.

I started to think about whether there is dignity after death and, if so, what are its parameters, when I read a news article from the New Haven Register, about the skeleton of an enslaved man that was being studied by the anthropology faculty and students at Quinnipiac University prior to burial.

The enslaved man who died in the 1798 (slavery was not abolished in Connecticut until 1848), was named Fortune. At the time of his death Fortune was the human chattel of a Waterbury Connecticut physician who upon Fortune’s death boiled his body to remove the flesh keeping his skeleton to study human anatomy. Fortune’s body remained unburied and was on display as late as 1970 at the Mattatuck Museum where until recently it was still housed. Read More

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Free speech rights and free speech pedagogy

I am working on a paper about student speech rights in public school that has me vacillating about whether the classic Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) is a brilliant exercise in linedrawing or an utter failure. Many readers will remember that Tinker held that students could wear black armbands to school in silent protest of American involvement in hostilities in Vietnam; school officials may interfere with or punish speech only if  they reasonably forecast that it will “materially or substantially interfer[e] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school or collide with the rights of others.”  The Tinker rule has the nice feature of explaining why a student cannot answer a teacher’s question “What were the results of Irish potato famine?” with “US Out of Vietnam!” while she can say the same thing in the hallway. More broadly, Tinker establishes a certain kind of pedagogical regime for the hours that students spend in-school-but-not-in-class, one where students can learn how to exercise constitutional rights by practicing them, up to the point of disruption.

Tinker’s flaws were made vivid once again this week by yet another case, this one from the Fourth Circuit, involving students being prohibited from and punished for wearing to school clothing that bears the likeness of Confederate flags. Such behavior seems initially very similar to wearing a black armband to protest Vietnam; but the courts of appeals have fairly consistently held that such speech can be barred under Tinker because histories of racial tension make it reasonable for school authorities to expect disruption to result from such displays. The new case, Hardwick v. Heyward, is quite emphatic on this score, emphasizing that the mere fact that the shirts did not lead to disruption is immaterial, because it was reasonable for school officials to predict disruption; moreover past racial disputes in the school were material, because they made the prediction more reasonable. The Hardwick rationale pretty clearly means that, had there once been fistfights in the Des Moines schools about the Vietnam War, or perhaps even World War II, then the armbands could have been banned in the present. Thus Tinker is deployed to create a particularly strong kind of hecklers’ veto.

My gut reaction to this case is — who is fooling whom? Read More

Coates on Racism

I found this a particularly powerful column by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the frisking of Forest Whitaker at a New York City deli:

Last month the actor Forest Whitaker was stopped in a Manhattan delicatessen by an employee. Whitaker is one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation. . . Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a “sincere mistake” made by a “decent man” who was “just doing his job.” I believe him.

We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years. But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner.

The “invisible violence” extends to the newsmagazine of NYC’s billionaire mayor, to his law enforcement policies. Implicit bias is pervasive. We need not accuse any particular person of evil intent to observe the corrosive structures that reinforce it.

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More Thoughts on the Dangerous Fragility of Men

First, I want to thank my hosts here at Concurring Opinions for asking me to stay on for another month. One of the things this extended invitation allows me to do is to respond at some length to issues raised in the comments on my last post, “The Dangerous Fragility of Men.” In that post, I highlighted a troubling phenomenon: men with privilege and power characterizing their insecurities and lack of self-control as vulnerability, and using that alleged vulnerability as an excuse or justification for murder, rape, and discrimination (and I would add, though I didn’t discuss it in the post, harassment and intimidation). To demonstrate this phenomenon, I offered a sample of quotations from recent, high-profile cases including Oscar Pistorius‘ shooting of his girlfriend and the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The post suggested that our society should make a greater effort both to marginalize this cowardice and become more attentive to actual vulnerability. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on these ideas and address some of the objections raised in the responses to my post.

I first want to spend a bit more time on the question of perceived v. actual vulnerability. I noted in my original post that one of the perplexing aspects of this form of male vulnerability is that it seems to increase, rather than decrease, with power or privilege. Frequently, the men using weakness as an excuse or justification (or others offering such explanations on their behalf) for harm are people who are objectively less vulnerable than most. They include famous athletes, soldiers, and wealthy businessmen. I think it is worth spelling this out more explicitly: there is a tendency on the part of privileged individuals to overstate their vulnerability. This tendency towards exaggerated sensitivity is important because it stunts what might otherwise be a meaningful process of self-examination. Feeling vulnerable is not the same thing as being vulnerable, and even actual vulnerability might need to yield before (or at least take into consideration) the greater vulnerability of other people.

We are all vulnerable in certain ways. Figuring out the what and why of our vulnerabilities is an important part of psychological awareness and well-being. What is of most interest to me here, however, is determining the conditions under which it is permissible for us to impose our vulnerabilities on other people, especially when that imposition takes the form of violence or discrimination. In determining those conditions, I would suggest we should ask ourselves at least three questions. One, we should question whether our vulnerability is objectively reasonable. Vulnerability that results from personal insecurity or prejudice is not vulnerability that we may rightfully impose on others. It is our own responsibility to correct vulnerabilities of our own creation. Second, we should question the magnitude of our vulnerability, especially when put in perspective with the vulnerabilities of others. Third, even if our vulnerability is both reasonable and of serious magnitude, we should question whether we are imposing it on appropriate parties in a just and proportional way. Read More

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The Stanford Law Review Online: School Security Considerations After Newtown

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Jason P. Nance entitled School Security Considerations After Newtown. Professor Nance writes that strict school security measures may be ineffective but have a balkanizing effect:

On December 14, 2012, and in the weeks thereafter, our country mourned the deaths of twenty children and six educators who were brutally shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since that horrific event, parents, educators, and lawmakers have understandably turned their attention to implementing stronger school security measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again. In fact, many states have enacted or proposed legislation to provide additional funds to schools for metal detectors, surveillance cameras, bulletproof glass, locked gates, and law enforcement officers. Because increased security measures are unlikely to prevent someone determined to commit a violent act at school from succeeding, funding currently dedicated to school security can be put to better use by implementing alternative programs in schools that promote peaceful resolution of conflict.

He concludes:

The events at Newtown have caused all of us to deeply consider how to keep students safe at school. A natural response to this atrocity is to demand that lawmakers and school administrators invest our limited public funds into strict security measures. But this strategy is misguided. Empirical evidence suggests that these additional investments in security equipment and law enforcement officers may lead to further disparities along racial and economic lines. Further, it is imperative that all constituencies understand that there are more effective ways to address violence than resorting to coercive measures that harm the educational environment. Indeed, schools can make a tremendous impact in the lives of students by teaching students appropriate ways to resolve conflict and making them feel respected, trusted, and cared for. These are the types of schools that can make a real difference in the lives of students.

Read the full article, School Security Considerations After Newtown at the Stanford Law Review Online.