Friday, March 03, 2006

Separate and Unequal, Part II

In response to JRO's comments to the previous post (I was writing so much I figured I'd just post it):

I agree that the terms "multicultural," "melting pot," "assimilated," are really problematic terms.

But with respect to race and education, "integration" and "inclusivity," for me at least, refer to the dismantling of the very real de jure legal rules that kept Black kids out of school or in second citizen status. I don't want students of color "acting white" in order to feel comfortable in law school (although I have found that to be the demand), but I don't think a separate study lounge helps anything. If sharing an "integrated" study lounge, as in "this is a public space, open to everyone," is uncomfortable for minorities, then a separate lounge won't help anything. If you feel forced to "act" one way in the multi-lounge, and another way when you are among your "own kind," then that's a real problem with how the school is allowing an environment that makes such demands for "acting white." If the students just want to feel "comfortable" and hanging out with non-minorities makes them feel "uncomfortable," then I just can't support that sentiment. It smacks of the same segregationist animus of Jim Crow, no matter who's doing it.

But if the space was created for a real practical and/or pedagogical purpose, then I would agree that the separateness is necessary to the purpose and character of the space. I can see "nurse in comfort" areas as having a legitimate purpose that demands separateness. Similarly, a space for students to critique the whiteness of the ivory tower, e.g. a "Cross-Cultureal Center" is far more than a social study lounge--there, the space is created within an oppressive institution by those and for those who critique it substantively.

The Supreme Court says that we cannot compel people to associate with others whom they do not wish to associate with (Boy Scouts v. Dale). This is why we can correct de jure segregation (created and enforced by the government via laws, racially restrictive covenants, see Brown v. Board) but we cannot do much to correct de facto segregation (created by patterns of white flight, racial settlement patterns, socioeconomic settlement, see Milliken v. Bradley). We can't make people move to another city or force them to bus their kids to a school 2 hours away. I find this decision problematic, but I don't have as much of a problem with this decision as I do the Supreme Court's decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that inequality in educational opportunity based on the unequal wealth of school districts did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Still, even though I disliked most of the people in my section at law school, if I hung out in the student lounge or in the courtyard, I had to see them. Did I retreat to the library, the journal office, or just stay home? Yes. But my dislike for trying to make small talk with vapid people about their new Kate Spade bag is probably more to do with my introversion and general misanthropy than anything attributable to the administration or the institutional culture. If it was the school making me feel uncomfortable in the public space by either official or passive endorsement of offensive posters, or lewd/threatening conduct that creates a hostile or unsafe space--well, that would be different.

I bring this up because in my last year (why didn't I take a picture?!) some idiot ran for the SBA (remember, the law school student body? You know, like an anagram of ASB ?) with posters with some soft-core porn babe straddling a leather couch (I kid you not) saying "I Voted for _____, Three Times!" (and other offensive sayings that were even more gross) It made women feel physically ill--women wrote to the Dean in complaint, and thankfully, the offensive posters were taken down. Remember, there is no absolute right to free speech, particularly in non-public fora with other compelling interests (hostile educational environment, the safety of others) in play. I remember being offended, and also really moved when a classmate spoke tearfully about how proud she was to get into our school, and how when she came here she thought that she would be seen for her intellect and legal skills, not as a piece of ass--and how forcefully these posters made her feel objectified and humiliated. Remember tortious speech Eggshell Plaintiff--you take us as we come.

So I admit, study lounges are not always hospitable for everyone. This is why I completely understand the motivations of the minority students at NYU Law. Yet, as a woman of color, I still do not think that what they are proposing is the right solution. It's no solution, it's just a ill-fitting bandaid if there's a real problem with how minorities are treated in public spaces, or just an insupportable exercise in self-segregation. If there's a real problem, my heart goes out to them, and I hope the dean is doing something about it. If it's just for the minority students to avoid hanging out with people they don't feel comfortable with, well--tough luck, I can't support you. I wouldn't support white students asking for a "whites only" lounge if they felt uncomfortable with the "coloreds," and so I can't support this, despite knowing the emotional and principled motivations for it.

I say this from experience, and with sympathy. There are plenty of stupid people saying stupid things in your presence that will be offensive and hurtful to you. So long as they are not endorsed by the administration, or supported as semi-permanent fixtures that you can't escape unless you avoid the space entirely, these are temporary offenses that you can avoid by leaving the room--briefly. Remember, if you don't like seeing "Fuck the Draft" on someone's t-shirt, look away, and then return your gaze to the original path of sight. But if there was anything to make you feel unsafe in the space, any sort of hostile environment, you should see your Dean. If s/he does nothing to correct it, then there's the biggest problem--more than the posters or the jerk who perisists in stalking women around the lounge. If it goes beyond the posters or the persistence of a creep in a corner trying to assault women, if it's to the point where the administration knows that there is a problem and does nothing--then no separate study lounge is going to correct the root of the problem. You can't change the nature of the space by trying to cordon off the problems. The problems will always follow you into the next room.

So I'm all for creating a space for students to substantively and critically protest the white hegemony of the ivory tower. I would attend those lectures, roundtables, and brown-bags in a heartbeat. Heck, my CRS program had several brownbags devoted to that kind of theme. But a separate study lounge isn't going to solve the problem of coerced association with people you don't like or feel comfortable being around. I seriously doubt that everyone feels comfortable with each other. I would look at a classroom and see it automatically divide not so much by race or gender, but by politics--the public interest students on one side and the more conservative types on the other, with the corporate, but progressively inclined (they kind of get along with everybody) in the middle. In fact, I kind of think coerced association is good for people. I'm not saying the administration should make people eat lunch with people they hate (I'd have dropped out), but in creating an open, public space where people will naturally commingle to get their mail, check their email, eat lunch--that's probably a good thing. And if that open, rainbow-happy space is ever compromised by hostile, offensive conduct--then see your dean, and hopefully the problem can be straightened out without segregating the sexes/races or going to court.

It's just a study lounge, people. Relax.