Adventures in Rhetorical Brilliance: Black Law Students of Georgetown and Scalia

I’ve been writing about trigger warnings, political correctness, and safe space issues for almost two years now (starting with this CNN piece, but extending throughout my blog, including ‘trigger warnings are your friends.’).

There are at least two different strains of critique of the notion of microaggressions on campus. One is from mostly male white semi-liberals who find the critique from the left discomforting. A second, though, comes from conservatives in academia who simultaneously deny that microaggressions are a real thing, while claiming that conservatives face microaggressions all the time.

I actually do think there’s plenty of discrimination against conservatives in academia, which is a problem, but it’s also useful to leverage these moments to talk about broader and more powerful forces like racism, sexism, and ableism.

Enter the Black Law Students of Georgetown law. First, conservative students complained that anti-Scalia discourse was hurtful to them. Then the Black Law Students Association performed a kind of rhetorical aikido I find impressive. Some quotes [emphasis theirs]:

We recognize that many in the legal community, including some in our own organization, mourn the death of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an influential and widely respected legal mind. We also understand that his passing has left many Georgetown Law students deeply saddened and we offer our sincere condolences to these students.

One particular email response from Professors Nick Rosenkranz and Randy Barnett decries the lack of intellectual diversity at Georgetown, citing the experiences of conservative students in the wake of Professor Gary Peller and Louis Michael Seidman’s emails:

Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are twenty-two year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor Peller’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for Justice Scalia and his admirers, including them. How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?

This paragraph could be edited slightly, inserting black students for conservative and libertarian students, and the effect would be the same.

In fact, this description is nearly identical to the lived and voiced experiences of many students of color at our institution.

Many Black students were also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” as “22-year-old 1Ls” when the law school declined to make unprompted timely statements last school year regarding the uptick in racialized policing, law enforcement, and the lack of indictments of violent police officers.

Many Black students were also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry,” when fact patterns on a practice exam directly referenced the facts of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

The letter goes on with other examples, deploying the conservative students’ own words back at them,

If cultural and political conservatives accept that language has power (see: “War on Christmas”) when used against them, then all language has power.

So let’s get to work improving modes of representation and calling out microaggressions, wherever we find them.

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