Category: Race

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Feminist Legal Theorizing about the Second Amendment: What Heller Missed

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In my previous post, I suggested that it’s long past time for a feminist analysis of the right to keep and bear arms.  Drawing on my forthcoming article, “Guns, Race, and Sex,” this part follows the Court’s lead in Heller v. McDonald by examining the ratification history of the Second Amendment.

In Heller, the Court split the provision’s text into two parts.  The majority decided that the second (“operative”) clause, supported by the first (“prefatory”) clause, equaled an individual right to possess and carry weapons for self-defense purposes–not limited to militia service.  But closer examination of the Amendment’s terms and the context surrounding its ratification suggests structural purposes extending the individual use of firearms.

Based on their experience dealing with a distant and detached sovereign, among other things, the framers were deeply troubled by the prospect of a standing army.  To them, professional soldiers would be loyal to and help empower central government.  At the same time, they recognized the need for national security.  As a result, the Second Amendment reference to the militia reflects a compromise among the framers to provide for defense, but doing so in a way that would not jeopardize state sovereignty.  Put differently, it’s another check on federal power.  Framers believed that the state’s citizens—local men—would be the best guarantors of peace.  Those men were “the people” the Amendment references, which further suggests that this phrase has structural significance.

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Feminist Legal Theorizing about the Second Amendment: Gun Violence is a Women’s Issue

Thanks so much, Naomi, for inviting me to blog this month.  It’s really an honor and pleasure to participate in the lively discussion on this forum.

Starting today, concealed weapons will be allowed on college campuses in Texas.  Ironically, this new law goes into effect on the solemn anniversary of the state’s largest mass shooting at none other than its flagship institution, the University of Texas.

More guns.  Just what we need.

After all, there haven’t been enough headlines about Black lives lost at the hands of police, or stunning murders of white police officers as they protected Black Lives Matter protesters.

Please forgive my sarcasm. I’m frustrated.  Before this year is out, I’m sure there will be more tragic slayings, more outpourings of grief and recrimination, but still no movement toward sensible reform of gun laws.

And, amidst the din, there is little to nothing coming from feminist legal circles.

Two summers ago, Nation commentator Dani McClain argued that “the murder of Black youth is a reproductive justice issue.”  Her call to action came to mind when I saw the “Mothers of the Movement” during the Democratic National Convention.  The mother of Jordan Davis, who was shot for playing his music too loud, openly hoped for a time when membership in this “club of heartbroken mothers” would shrink.

I had been puzzling over this issue for a while, struck by the no-regulation-no-time stance of the National Rifle Association.  In the context of reproductive justice, many have argued with success that the state’s interest in potential life trumps women’s fundamental interest in bodily integrity (thankfully, with Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court finally has drawn a line over which states cannot cross).  Imagine if potential gun buyers had to jump through the same hoops as women seeking abortions. As district court judge Myron Thompson stated in Planned Parenthood v. Strange, the legislature would have “a heck of a lot of explaining” to do.

Hypotheticals aside, it doesn’t take much digging to see the gendered and raced aspects of gun violence.  An August 2015 survey by the Ms. Foundation for Women showed that violence is a top concern for women.  Firearms figure prominently in the domestic violence context.  According to the Pew Research Center, gun owners are predominantly male and white—they are 82 % of firearm owners.

So, in the next three blog posts, I accept McClain’s challenge and apply a feminist analysis to the issue of guns in the nation.  Given the medium, the exploration will be brief; but, I discuss it more fully in a forthcoming article upon which my posts are drawn, “Guns, Sex, and Race:  The Second Amendment through a Feminist Lens,” which will be published in the Tennessee Law Review.

The feminist lens that I’m using is one that is intersectional and rooted in feminist legal practice:  social justice feminism (SJF). SJF emerged from practitioners responding to the calls from women of color and other marginalized women to recalibrate the women’s movement with a focus on their needs.  As my colleague Kristin Kalsem and I have explained, SJF is about uncovering and dismantling social and political structures that support patriarchy, while “recognizing and addressing multiple oppressions.” SJF methodologies focus on historical context, structural inequities, intersecting oppressions and underserved populations.  In so doing, they reveal issues liberal feminism might fail to recognize as having gender implications.

SJF’s historical method looks to the past in order identify the roots of structural inequalities and dismantle them.  In this sense, SJF follows in the footsteps of feminist and critical race theory in seeking to uncover lost histories, elevate the experiences of marginalized people, and reveal how traditional historical narratives mask and perpetuate subordination.

In the posts that follow, I will apply this methodology to the Court’s decisions in Heller v. District of Columbia and McDonald v. Chicago, cases that relied heavily on a so-called originalist telling of history.  However, SJF reveals the context omitted by the majorities in both cases—one that helped lay the foundation for a race-and gender-based social hierarchy.

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 64, Discourse

Volume 64, Discourse
Discourse

Citizens Coerced: A Legislative Fix for Workplace Political Intimidation Post-Citizens United Alexander Hertel-Fernandez & Paul Secunda 2
Lessons From Social Science for Kennedy’s Doctrinal Inquiry in Fisher v. University of Texas II Liliana M. Garces 18
Why Race Matters in Physics Class Rachel D. Godsil 40
The Indignities of Color Blindness Elise C. Boddie 64
The Misuse of Asian Americans in the Affirmative Action Debate Nancy Leong 90
How Workable Are Class-Based and Race-Neutral Alternatives at Leading American Universities? William C. Kidder 100
Mismatch and Science Desistance: Failed Arguments Against Affirmative Action Richard Lempert 136
Privileged or Mismatched: The Lose-Lose Position of African Americans in the Affirmative Action Debate Devon W. Carbado, Kate M. Turetsky, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns 174
The Right to Record Images of Police in Public Places: Should Intent, Viewpoint, or Journalistic Status Determine First Amendment Protection? Clay Calvert 230
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UCLA Law Review Vol. 63, Issue 2

Volume 63, Issue 2 (February 2016)
Articles

The Business of Treaties Melissa J. Durkee 264
Choosing Constitutional Remedies Eric S. Fish 322
Judging Third-Party Funding Victoria Shannon Sahani 388

 

Comments

The Courtroom as White Space: Racial Performance as Noncredibility Amanda Carlin 450
Red Belt, Green Hunt, Gray Law: India’s Naxalite-Maoist Insurgency and the Law of Non-International Armed Conflict Sandeep Avinash Prasanna 486
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Developmental Equality

We live in a time where we can accurately predict the risks and opportunities for many children.  As surely as if we marked them at birth (or even before), we can identify who will likely succeed and who will likely fail by adulthood.  Race and gender, alone and in combination, generate clear odds.  Disparate risk generates a hierarchy of children, and we know who will be at the bottom.  Children’s inequalities are linked to developmental supports for some children, coupled with not only the lack of support for others, but also the presence of barriers and challenges, designed for children to fail, not to succeed.

Children’s inequalities, by race and gender, are particularly evident in the life course of Black boys.  Their patterns from birth to 18 are an example of similar patterns for other children at the bottom.  I do not mean to suggest here a hierarchy of inequalities, but rather to use their life course to adulthood as an example of the marked outcomes for certain children.  At birth, a Black baby boy has more than a one in three risk of being born into poverty.  He has a one in two risk of never graduating from high school.  And he has a one in three risk of being incarcerated in his lifetime, in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system.  His risk of incarceration doubles if he is born at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.  While he may transcend these risks, the trajectory funnels him toward failure and subordination, to the low end of what is a hierarchy of opportunity for kids.

These disparate negative risks to development are linked to systems that fail him:  systems that do little to support, and much to undermine, his growth to his full potential.  These are systems constructed and perpetuated by the state, at federal, state, and local levels, by the choice of policies despite the evidence of disparate, unequal outcomes along known, identifiable identity lines. Those systems include the poverty system (the clutch of policies that perpetuate poverty, and income inequality by race, rather than provide pathways out of poverty); the education system (highly segregated by race, disparate in resources and outcomes school-to-school, and especially negative in outcomes for Black boys), and the juvenile justice system (a largely boys’ system designed to punish and disadvantage for life rather than rehabilitate; and a sharply disparate system in every negative way for boys of color, particularly Black boys).  In combination, these systems and others directly impact the lives of Black boys, their families, and their communities in negative ways that replicate inequality.  The pattern is not merely one of insufficiency or inadequacy, but of barriers and harms.

The inequalities of Black boys are not unique.  There are other children who are predictably at the bottom, that we expect to be there.  And unequal hierarchies are not unique to American children.  In many countries, data reveal which children are marked for failure.  So, for example, in all countries in Europe in which they are present, Roma children are disproportionately poor, minimally educated, and jobless; the most unequal are Roma girls.  Muslim children similarly are targeted in many European countries, as are migrant and refugee children.

How can we address these inequalities, and those of other identifiable groups of children who reach adulthood lacking in opportunity due to failed outcomes and barriers placed in their way?   I propose that we have to think about these blatant inequalities differently, in order to craft meaningful change, by embracing a model I call “Developmental Equality.”

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West Point, Swimming, and Developmental Equality

Two separate stories in the news speak volumes about our expectations, assumptions, and knowledge about the lives of children of color.  We know they develop under an expectation of failure rather than success.  Rather than an equal opportunity to succeed, we know, implicitly, that they are funneled to failure.  Thus, when we find children of color unexpectedly successful, we are startled by their transcendence.

We should examine our expectations, our acceptance of the structural discrimination that we passively support or ignore that perpetuates inequality.  Once we do, we have to confront the harshly unequal developmental path for children of color.

The first story is about a photograph of a group of 16 African American women in their dress uniforms as graduating seniors at West Point. West Point still has only a minority of women (the 2014 entering class was 78% male), and remains mostly white (70%).  The women in the photo represented all but one of the Black women graduating, a mere 1.7% of the graduating class.  The women are posed outside the oldest barracks,  a favorite setting for graduation pictures replicating similar groups of graduates for over a 100 years.  Each of the women stands with her arm bent upward ending in a raised fist; some have their arms simply at their side, while a few extend theirs over their heads.

So what did the women in this photograph mean by their pose?

A statement of black female empowerment?  A statement of personal fortitude and accomplishment, and group solidarity?  A statement of protest?  A statement of difference, separating them from other graduates?  A statement of political content, perhaps with #Black Lives Matter or #Say Her Name, movements that have raised consciousness about the inequalities in black lives?

Read as protest, it would violate the norms of universality, of color and gender blindness, and of conduct becoming an officer.  The picture generated enormous controversy for several days.  Each person viewed it from their context, including their view of women, of women of color, and of these women’s place in this setting and institution historically male and white.  Also part of the context was making meaning of their common gesture of a raised clenched fist.   Triggering calls for disciplinary action against the seniors, the controversy finally ended when it was determined that the students had done nothing that required disciplinary action.

For me, in addition to the debate about meaning was the universal unspoken assumption that black women in this place were out of place; not because they did not deserve to be there or to pose like countless other graduates of West Point, but rather, they had transcended the expectation that their place was elsewhere.  Read More

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Unequal Exposure

Towards the end of the breathless and impassioned tour through privacy, surveillance, carcerality, and desire that is Exposed, Bernard Harcourt writes that “the emphasis on what we must do as ethical selves, each and every one of us – us digital subjects – may be precisely what is necessary for us to begin to think of ourselves as we. Yes, as that we that has been haunting this book since page one” (283). The call for unity and solidarity is seductive: if “we” are all exposed and vulnerable, then “we” can all resist and demand change. But that “we” – that reassuring abstraction of humanity and human experience – is not in fact what haunts this book. That “we” – unquestioned, undifferentiated, unmarked – is taken for granted and treated as the universal subject in this book. What truly haunts this book is everything that this “we” obscures and represses. Harcourt’s “we” is remarkably undifferentiated. Nearly every point Harcourt makes about how “we” experience digital subjectivity, surveillance, and exposure would and should be contested by women, people of color, the poor, sexual minorities (and those who belong to more than one of the categories in this non-exhaustive list). It is unfair, of course, to expect any one book or any one author to capture the full complexity of human experience on any topic. One writes about what one knows, and nuance must sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of broad theory. But there is a difference between falling short of conveying the diversity of human experience and barely acknowledging the existence of differentiation. If one of Harcourt’s goals is to lead us to “think of ourselves as we,” it is vital to recognize that  “we” in the digital age are not equally represented, equally consenting or resisting, or equally exposed.

Let’s begin with Harcourt’s characterization of the digital age as a study in shallow positivity: “We do not sing hate, we sing praise. We ‘like,’ we ‘share,’ we ‘favorite.’ We ‘follow.’ We ‘connect.’ ‘We get LinkedIn.’ Ever more options to join and like and appreciate. Everything today is organized around friending, clicking, retweeting, and reposting. … We are appalled by mean comments – which are censored if they are too offensive”(41). This is a picture of the digital world that will be  unrecognizable to many people. There is no mention of online mobs, targeted harassment campaigns, career-destroying defamation, rape and death threats, doxxing, revenge porn, sex trafficking, child porn, online communities dedicated to promoting sexual violence against women, or white supremacist sites. No mention, in short, of the intense, destructive, unrelenting hatred that drives so much of the activity of our connected world. Harcourt’s vision of our digital existence as a sunny safe space where occasional “mean comments” are quickly swept from view is nothing short of extraordinary.

Next, consider Harcourt’s repeated insistence that there are no real distinctions between exposer and exposed, the watcher and the watched: “There is no clean division between those who expose and those who surveil; surveillance of others has become commonplace today, with nude pictures of celebrities circulating as ‘trading fodder’ on the more popular anonymous online message boards, users stalking other users, and videos constantly being posted about other people’s mistakes, accidents, rants, foibles, and prejudices. We tell stories about ourselves and others. We expose ourselves. We watch others” (129). There are, in fact, important divisions between exposers and the exposed. With regard to sexual exposure, it is overwhelmingly the case that women are the subjects and not the agents of exposure. The nude photos to which Harcourt refers weren’t of just any celebrities; they were with few exceptions female celebrities. The hacker in that case, as in nearly every other case of nude photo hacking, is male, as is nearly every revenge porn site owner and the majority of revenge porn consumers. The “revenge porn” phenomenon itself, more accurately described as “nonconsensual pornography,” is overwhelmingly driven by men exposing women, not the other way around. Many of Harcourt’s own examples of surveillance point to the gender imbalance at work in sexual exposure. The LOVEINT scandal, the CCTV cameras pointed into girls’ toilets and changing rooms in UK schools (229), and Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA employees share naked pictures (230) primarily involve men doing the looking and women and girls being looked at. The consequences of sexual exposure are also not gender-neutral: while men and boys may suffer embarrassment and shame, girls and women suffer these and much more, including being expelled from school, fired from jobs, tormented by unwanted sexual propositions, and threatened with rape.

There are also important distinctions to be made between those who voluntarily expose themselves and those who are exposed against their will. In the passage above, Harcourt puts nude photos in the same list as videos of people’s “rants, foibles, and prejudices.” The footnote to that sentence provides two specific examples: Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked photos and video of Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s Kramer) launching into a racist tirade as he performed at a comedy club (311). That is a disturbing false equivalence. The theft of private information is very different from a public, voluntary display of racist hatred. In addition to the fact that naked photos are in no way comparable to casual references to lynching and the repeated use of racial slurs, it should matter that Jennifer Lawrence was exposed against her will and Michael Richards exposed himself.

It’s not the only time in the book that Harcourt plays a bit fast and loose with the concepts of consent and voluntariness. In many places he criticizes “us” for freely contributing to our own destruction: “There is hardy any need for illicit or surreptitious searches, and there is little need to compel, to pressure, to strong-arm, or to intimidate, because so many of us are giving all our most intimate information and whereabouts so willingly and passionately – so voluntarily” (17).  And yet Harcourt also notes that in many cases, people do not know that they are being surveilled or do not feel that they have any practical means of resistance. “The truth is,” Harcourt tells us with regard to the first, “expository power functions best when those who are seen are not entirely conscious of it, or do not always remember. The marketing works best when the targets do not know that they are being watched” (124). On the second point, Harcourt observes that “when we flinch at the disclosure, most of us nevertheless proceed, feeling that we have no choice, not knowing how not to give our information, whom we would talk to, how to get the task done without the exposure. We feel we have no other option but to disclose” (181-2). But surely if people are unaware of a practice or feel they cannot resist it, they can hardly be considered to have voluntarily consented to it.

Also, if people often do not know that they are under surveillance, this undermines one of the more compelling concerns of the book, namely, that surveillance inhibits expression. It is difficult to see how surveillance could have an inhibiting effect if the subjects are not conscious of the fact that they are being watched. Surreptitious surveillance certainly creates its own harms, but if subjects are truly unaware that they are being watched – as opposed to not knowing exactly when or where surveillance is taking place but knowing that it is taking place somewhere somehow, which no doubt does create a chilling effect – then self-censorship is not likely to be one of them.

Harcourt suggests a different kind of harm when he tells us that “[i]nformation is more accessible when the subject forgets that she is being stalked” (124). That is, we are rendered more transparent to the watchers when we falsely believe they are not watching us. That seems right. But what exactly is the harm inflicted by this transparency? Harcourt warns that we are becoming “marketized subjects – or rather subject-objects who are nothing more than watched, tracked, followed, profiled at will, and who in turn do nothing more than watch and observe others” (26). While concerns about Big Data are certainly legitimate (and have been voiced by many scholars, lawyers, policymakers, and activists), Harcourt never paints a clear picture of what he thinks the actual harm of data brokers and targeted Target advertisements really is. In one of the few personal and specific examples he offers of the harms of surveillance, Harcourt describes the experience of being photographed by a security guard before a speaking engagement. Harcourt is clearly unsettled by the experience: “I could not resist. I did not resist. I could not challenge the security protocol. I was embarrassed to challenge it, so I gave in without any resistance. But it still bothers me today. Why? Because I had no control over the dissemination of my own identity, of my face. Because I felt like I had no power to challenge, to assert myself” (222). While one sympathizes with Harcourt’s sense of disempowerment, it is hard to know what to think of it in relation to the sea of other surveillance stories: women forced to flee their homes because of death threats, parents living in fear because the names of their children and the schools they attend have been published online, or teenaged girls committing suicide because the photo of their rape is being circulated on the Internet as a form of entertainment.

Harcourt uses the term “stalk” at least eight times in this book, and none of these references are to actual stalking, the kind that involves being followed by a particular individual who knows where you live and work and means you harm, the kind that one in six women in the U.S. will experience in her lifetime, the kind that is encouraged and facilitated by an ever-expanding industry of software, gadgets, and apps that openly market themselves to angry men as tools of control over the women who have slipped their grasp. What a privilege it is to be able to treat stalking not as a fact of daily existence, but as a metaphor.

Harcourt’s criticism of what he considers to be the Supreme Court’s lack of concern for privacy adds a fascinating gloss to all of this. Harcourt takes particular aim at Justice Scalia, asserting that even when Scalia seems to be protecting privacy, he is actually disparaging it: “Even in Kyllo v. United States…. where the Court finds that the use of heat-seeking technology constitutes a search because it infringes on the intimacies of the home, Justice Scalia mocks the humanist conception of privacy and autonomy.” The proof of this assertion supposedly comes from Scalia’s observation that the technology used in that case “might disclose, for example, at what hour each night the lady of the house takes her daily sauna and bath – a detail that many would consider ‘intimate.’” Harcourt assumes that Scalia’s reference to the “lady of the house” is an ironic expression of contempt. But Scalia is not being ironic. Elsewhere in the opinion, he emphatically states that “[i]n the home… all details are intimate details,” and many of his other opinions reinforce this view. Scalia and many members of the Court are very concerned about privacy precisely when it involves the lady of the house, or the homeowner subjected to the uninvited drug-sniffing dog on the porch (Florida v. Jardines, 2013), or the federal official subjected to the indignity of a drug test (Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 1989 (dissent)). These same members of the Court, however, are remarkably unconcerned about privacy when it involves a wrongfully arrested man subjected to a humiliating “squat and cough” cavity search (Florence v. Burlington, 2012), or a driver searched after being racially profiled (Whren v. US, 1996), a pregnant woman tricked into a drug test while seeking prenatal care (Ferguson v. Charleston, 2001 (dissent)). In other words, the problem with the Supreme Court’s views on privacy and surveillance is not that it does not care about it; it’s that it tends to care about it only when it affects interests they share or people they resemble.

The world is full of people who do not have the luxury of worrying about a growing addiction to Candy Crush or whether Target knows they need diapers before they do. They are too busy worrying that their ex-husband will hunt them down and kill them, or that they will be stopped and subjected to a humiliating pat down for the fourth time that day, or that the most private and intimate details of their life will be put on public display by strangers looking to make a buck. These people are not driven by a desire to expose themselves. Rather, they are being driven into hiding, into obscurity, into an inhibited and chilled existence, by people who are trying to expose them. If “we” want to challenge surveillance and fight for privacy, “they” must be included.

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Our Precious Perversions

It’s a strange time to be a pervert in America. Donald Trump may well be elected the 45th president, running on a platform of protecting the traditional family by rolling back newly-won, sweeping marriage rights for gays and expanding the first amendment to protect outright anti-gay discrimination. At the same time, the New York Times ran a human-interest story last week about an interracial, sadomasochistic relationship involving a well-known musician and Columbia University professor, calling it, blandly, “A Composer and His Wife.”. Just a few years ago, both would have seemed equally improbable, perhaps even farcical. There’s something vertiginous about both the speed of the progress made by gay marriage advocates and the severity and far-reach of the backlash. How do we understand the simultaneous expansion of marriage regimes and the increasing public articulation of “alternative sexualities”? Are they, as many queer thinkers lament, impossible bedfellows? While public discourse about polyamory and kink is all but ubiquitous, we are still unbearably, insufferably held hostage to the marriage discourse. As Katherine Franke has so beautifully elaborated in her new book Wedlocked, marriage, particularly reproductive marriage, is increasingly the sole vehicle through which we can make space in public to talk about sex. That is one of the many unanticipated and vexing consequences of the push to legalize same-sex marriage. It used to be that marriage was “the place where sex goes to die,” but now I think marriage is just, somewhat disappointingly, where sex goes, period. But is that the end of the story?

As a “recovering” lawyer-turned-sociologist, I’ll focus here on some of the more general socio-legal claims in Franke’s book, which press us to approach the current moment with sobriety rather than celebration. As marriage expands its umbrella to shelter the dyadic, reproductive (“homonormative”) gay family, rights to marriage risk ossifying into obligations. Intermediate forms of relationship recognition, like domestic partnerships, begin to fall by the wayside, and a crag separating the legitimacy of the legal marital form for all other forms of kinship widens to a chasm.

Freedom has rules, Franke tells us, and they are not always the ones we might choose if we were in charge of our won freedom (3). History is instructive here. Attempts to force the plurality of kinship ties forged by newly freed slaves into legal, marital families required a series of arbitrary distinctions (for example, which of a succession of female partners would qualify for an emancipation or pension tied to one man’s military service). Coincident with the transfer of African American families from the “private control of owners to the public control of law” (5) was the political sentiment that any kinship tie outside of those marriages was either unimportant or the sign of social pathology. While we may think of marriage as a means of escaping the burden of social abjection (60), marriage regimes themselves produce that abjection. They are self-reinforcing. Communities with weblike, inventive kinship networks, which often serve protective functions for disadvantaged groups like racial minorities or sexual dissidents, are simultaneously invited into the dominant family form and told their existing affiliations are signposts of their unfitness.

I felt a familiar sense of hopelessness reading Wedlocked. As I’ve watched the gay movement rebrand itself from one focused on sexual and gender liberation to a “focus on the family,” I’ve wondered how we might recuperate some of the radical potential of queer kinship. And now, I’m left wondering how we might use marriage, since clearly it isn’t going anywhere, to assist in this project. In that spirit, I’d like to add a point to Franke’s “Progressive Call to Action for Married Queers,” for which I think we might take inspiration from Mollena Williams and Georg Friedrich Haas, the subjects of the Times story I described above.

It’s a rich story with a banal headline: world-famous composer and college professor finds love after three failed marriages—but this is not just any kind of love. Haas, a white Austrian, meets Williams, a black American, on a typical, bland dating site, and they commence a deep, negotiated power exchange, in which Williams submits to serving Haas, to making his life “as comfortable as possible.” Though the text of the Times story is less direct, this is a configuration familiar to those schooled in sexual diversity. Haas is a dominant; Williams is a submissive. He likely controls much of their joint life, and Williams derives satisfaction from being controlled. (This is not conjecture; Williams, a well-known sex educator, writes openly about her submission on her blog, The Perverted Negress.)

http://www.mollena.com

http://www.mollena.com

The rich layers of complexity in such a dynamic are, I’m sure, not lost on this readership: the juxtaposition of a feminist consciousness with female submission, the racialized power dynamics inherent in the configuration, the likely illegality of some of the sexual practices they admit to engaging in (when was the last time we saw the word “caning” in the New York Times?), the fact that such a relationship can also be, and indeed is, a marriage. Yet, while each of the dynamic concerns appears in a single sentence, the word marriage weaves its way through the narrative, the most dynamic portrayal being his failed previous marriages and his journey into this one.

But BDSM, a “compound acronym that connotes sexual interactions involving bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism” often leans into and not away from the law. It is likely that Haas and Williams have both a marriage contract and an extra-legal bdsm contract detailing the terms of their Dominant/submissive dynamic. And perverts are not the only ones making such creative use of law. Martha Ertman’s new book, Love’s Promises, profiled in an earlier symposium on this blog, describes those used by a range of what she terms “Plan B” families to negotiate the terms of cohabitation and parenting in ways formal law fails to address.

If marriage “cleaves the sex out of homosexuality” (6), we certainly shouldn’t see marriages like this one in the popular press. But, increasingly, we do. And while gays have struggled mightily to distance ourselves from this type of depiction to preserve our standing as viable legal and political subjects, now that we have attained it, perhaps it’s time to let some of that abjection back in. In a context of legal and social exclusion, both racial minorities and non-heterosexual people form a variety of kinship structures that mediate relations of intimacy and of care and dependence. Think, for example, of the “army of ex-lovers” responsible for caring for the first sufferers of hiv/aids. What happens to forms of non-marital intimacy under a marriage regime? They risk disappearing. Perhaps one thing we might do is take a lesson from Haas and Williams and make sure we don’t lose our precious perversions to the marriage discourse.

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Picturing the Past — New Photo Book on the Interment of Japanese-Americans

During a recent visit to one of my favorite bookstores — Biblion books in Lewes, DE — I had the pleasure of meeting Professor James C. Curtis (Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware), who has just published Discriminating Views: Documentary Photography & The Japanese American Internment.  

Dorothea Lange photo: Manzanar, California, July 4, 1942, WRA

Dorothea Lange photo: Manzanar, California, July 4, 1942, WRA

The 235-page book, laid out on wide pages of fine stock paper, “focuses on photographers hired by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and shows how their images were shaped by the government’s need to explain and justify the evacuation, confinement and eventual resettlement of over 110,000 Japanese Americans, two thirds of whom were American Citizens. Discriminating Views analyzes the work of Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, Francis Stewart, Tom Clark, Hikaru Iwasaki and other WRA photographers. The Manzanar photographs of Ansel Adams come in for special consideration. The author contends that WRA photographs were instruments of propaganda that often reflected the prevailing racial attitudes of the era.”

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Race, Love, and Promise

Sheena and Tiara Yates

Martha Ertman’s wonderful new book, Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families, is a must read for anyone concerned about families or law. Ertman’s core argument is that “contracts and deals” can play a critical role in “helping people create and sustain families.” In advancing this claim, the book – which reads like a good novel even as it maps the complex, shifting landscape of modern family law – primarily relies on Ertman’s own, very compelling story of love and parenthood. Along the way, however, it also communicates the stories of other “Plan B” families, those that Ertman describes as being formed in “uncommon” ways. In doing so, it clears important space for lawyers and non-lawyers alike to consider the experiences of all families. 

Ertman persuasively makes the case that formal and informal “exchanges . . . [already] define family life” in a host of ways, and that greater reliance on such contracts could support the formation and functioning of Plan B families, as well as their more “common,” Plan A, counterparts. As a family law professor,I am deeply sympathetic to this view.  Even more, like so many others, my personal life is comprised of a patchwork of formal and informal contracts. On one hand there is my almost twelve-year legal marriage and the enforceable post-adoption contact agreement — something Ertman would call a “PACA” — that provides for annual visitation with my younger son’s birth mother. Then, on the other hand, sit the unenforceable, but nevertheless important “deals” that I have made with family members. These include the parenting norms that my spouse and I follow in raising our two children, and the mutual vows that we made before family and friends – such as “to love your body as it ages” and “to support you in the pursuit of your dreams.” These promises both help to define and affirm the contours of our loving commitment as a couple and a family.

Nevertheless, I often found myself seeking more from the story that Love’s Promises tells about the place of contract in family life. Like the students I teach, I have some nagging questions about how well contract can work for those who, for example, lack the money to hire a lawyer to draft or defend their cohabitation agreements, or who, because of past experience with the legal system, might never think about contract as a potentially liberating force in their lives. Moreover, I wanted a more complex narrative about the operation of race and contract in the family context than the book attempts to communicate.

To be clear, Love’s Promises does not ignore the subject of race. Indeed, Ertman deserves high marks for examining topics such as Whites’ exclusion of Blacks from marriage during slavery; the forced sterilization of African American women; and the concerns about transracial adoption articulated by organizations such as the National Association of Black Social Workers in the 1970s in crafting her vision of what the rules concerning contract and love should be. But, as important as this past history is, what I most craved was deeper engagement with what increased reliance on contract would mean for issues of race and family in the future.

Laws pertaining to family have historically structured families, but also race – how it is defined, understood, and experienced — in very consequential ways. Think, for example, about antimiscegenation laws that helped to give content to the very idea of race, determining who would be regarded as black or white, slave or free. I am thus very skeptical about the notion that, without more, we can expect that a norm which encourages greater reliance on agreements — especially those that would be more than mere “deals” and thus enforceable in court – will always have an equality-enhancing effect. A newspaper article that I recently read about the efforts of a black, lesbian couple (their picture appears at the outset of this post) to expand their family helps to explain why.

Sheena and Tiara Yates, fell in love and, after their 2011 New Jersey commitment ceremony, decided that they wanted a child. They successfully had one child and later tried to become parents again. As they had the first time around, Sheena and Tiara, who legally married in 2014, used in-home insemination to conceive. To formalize their family unit and intentions, they also entered into a written contract with the known donor whose sperm they utilized. Their agreement contemplated the donor’s relinquishment of all parental rights in the new baby, something designed to permit Sheena and Tiara to parent the child they’d longed for as a unit of two.

Despite the contract, the donor subsequently brought a custody suit to challenge the agreement’s terms and, at least preliminarily, succeeded in doing so. In a decision that the Yateses are now appealing, a judge granted him parental visitation rights. In cases involving insemination, New Jersey, where Sheena and Tiara reside with their family, courts will only recognize a non-biological parent’s rights if the insemination process was carried out by a physician. Although Sheena and Tiara, according to news sources, met with a doctor and were prescribed prenatal vitamins, the actual insemination process was performed at their home, without medical assistance. Significantly, this is the second custody suit that the Yateses have had to defend. The donor for their oldest child challenged the agreement that they had with him on similar grounds and now has visitation rights with that child as well.

Race, gender, and class intersect in troubling ways in the Yates case. Admittedly, it is not contract per se that produces the potential inequality. In fact, Sheena and Tiara clearly saw contract as an important tool in growing their family. But they entered into the donor contracts described within in a particular context, one in which the medical and legal costs that attend physician-assisted fertility treatments generally remain out of reach for low and even some middle-income families, a group in which African Americans — perhaps LGBTQ Blacks most of all — are disproportionately represented. It is not hard to imagine that health care costs figured into their decision to inseminate at home or, for that matter, to use a known donor rather than an anonymous donor affiliated with a sperm bank. Add to this the potential effects of other factors, such as fact that, given past history, many African Americans mistrust doctors and medical facilities, a phenomenon that Kimani Paul-Emile discusses in her work. All of this troubles the story of contract’s ability to advance the aspirations of all families equally.

Significantly, my lament is not simply that Love’s Promises passes up an opportunity to discuss how the realities of race and structural inequality in this country might diminish the power of contract for African Americans and other groups of color in the family context. Ertman’s book also misses a chance to say something about the particular advantages that contract could offer such groups. Despite my earlier argument, my sense is that there may be some places where contract could be very effectively deployed to disrupt the effects of racial stigma and inequality, especially if paired with other tools.

Consider the example of nonmarital black families, especially those with children. Today, African Americans are the most unmarried group in the country. While the U.S. has seen declines in marriage among all groups, they have been steepest among Blacks. Interestingly, African Americans place a higher value on marriage than many other groups. Studies suggest, however, that considerations regarding financial security and other related issues may prevent them from seeing marriage as a viable option for organizing their lives. In a recent law review article in the Hastings Law Journal, I make the argument that, instead of investing in marriage promotion programs that too often ignore the structural racial inequality (e.g., poverty, school drop out rates, housing and food insecurity, and high incarceration rates) that often creates a barrier to marriage, we should work to honor and better support nonmarital black families where they stand.

When it comes to cohabiting couples, Ertman concludes that they “should be recognized as an ‘us’ in relation to one another through property-sharing rules,” such those proposed by the American Law Institute. She stops short, however, of saying that cohabitants should “be treated as an ‘us’ when it comes to institutions outside the relationship, like the IRS and the Social Security Administration.” As Ertman notes in addressing proposals advanced by other law professors, a focus on cohabitants alone won’t do much for African America, a community in which black “women . . . are three times more likely than white women never to live with an intimate partner and more likely than white women to center their lives among extended kin.” But contract might be a more effective tool if extended to nonmarital families with children, whether the parents reside together or not. This might be especially true if combined with changes in tax policy and the structure of benefits that Ertman is less comfortable making in the absence of marriage.

For reasons already articulated, I do not think that adults in poor, nonmarital black families will or should run out to find lawyers who can draft binding contracts for them. But I can still imagine a world in which a contract-based norm works to destigmatize such families by making it plain that they have structures and “deals” like many others, not just the “tangle of pathology” described in the Moynihan Report issued fifty years ago.   In such a world, even informal contracts could assist the adults in “fragile” families in negotiating the many challenges that they face and serve to reduce conflict. Further, such agreements, to the extent that they help reveal the precise terms of the negotiations in which such families already engage, might uncover the reasons that fragile black families seem to be able to navigate co-parenting better than their counterparts. They might also disrupt stereotypes about the contributions that fathers, in particular, make to such families. Despite the racialized trope of the “dead beat” dad, studies show that nonmarital African American fathers tend to be more involved with their children than nonmarital White fathers, and regularly contribute diapers and other goods as a way of providing support, even when dramatically reduced job opportunities make money scarce.

Love’s Promises helps us see the current realities of both “Plan A” and “Plan B” families, and to imagine what the future could and should be as a normative matter. I’m very grateful to Martha, the symposium organizers, and my fellow participants for helping me to think even more about the possibilities of contract in the family law context, especially where families of color are concerned. On this day, especially, when the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that LGBT couples are “Plan A” families in the eyes of the Constitution, I only hope that Ertman decides to write another book that builds on the important foundation that she has set.