It was just a few minutes before the start of class, and I was standing at the podium prepping my notes when, through my peripheral vision, I could see a speck of red on the student’s head as he entered the classroom. With just three weeks remaining until the end of the academic year, I knew this student’s political leanings from our various class discussions throughout the course of the semester.
Up to this point, the student had not—indeed no student in any of my classes had—donned any political paraphernalia in the classroom. This particular day, however, was different. As the student walked to his usual seat in the seminar, which was directly in my line of vision, the message on his flaming red hat was unmistakable: “MAGA,” or “Make American Great Again.”
I was in the first year of a two-year fellowship as a visiting assistant professor of law. Moreover, as an African-American male, I was one of an exceedingly small number of students, faculty and staff of color in the law school. From my (progressive) perspective as a black man living in the increasingly polarized political climate that is America, MAGA is an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups. . .
Thus, in that moment, I was unsure whether the student was directing a hateful message toward me or if he merely lacked decorum and was oblivious to how his hat might be interpreted by his black law professor. I presumed it was the former. As the student sat there directly in front of me, his shiny red MAGA hat was like a siren spewing derogatory racial obscenities at me for the duration of the one hour and fifteen-minute class.
Being a law professor, I understand the complexities of academic freedom and free speech. I respect students’ rights to freely express their political beliefs and values within the framework of the law. Yet, at the same time, law schools are inherently institutions of professional training. Just as faculty and staff are required to maintain professional formalities to aid the training and matriculation of their students, it seems only logical that students, too, should maintain similar businesslike etiquette.
But when students fail to live up to such professional expectations, what are the professors’ options? Although my position is at a private university, I understood that my lack of tenure, precarious status as a VAP and the hue of my skin meant that I would be fighting an uphill battle should I have asked the student to remove his distracting red hat during class. Surely, there must be protocol when African-American professors—whose presence is scarce in most law schools—find their authority defiantly undermined by an insensitive student.
Hey Prof. Snowflake, get over yourself. It’s not as if Johnny wore that hat just because you’re one of the blacks. . . Oh wait:
An informal survey of my colleagues revealed that no other law faculty had experienced any students wearing such propaganda in their classes, which furthered my contention that this student was indeed trying to intimidate and/or racially antagonize me.
I found this at Taxprof. Read the comments if you want to see how an African American law professor complaining about getting trolled by a Trumpkin student goes over with the sorts of law-talking conservatives who dominate that site. (If you want to stay in the boat, the tl;dr version is that it’s bizarre and indeed almost insanely wrong to argue that MAGA hats are symbols of white supremacy; that criticizing a student wearing a MAGA hat is like criticizing a student for wearing Obama-referencing clothing; that students shouldn’t be wearing hats in the classroom anyway so that’s the real problem; and that so much for so-called liberal “tolerance” of dissenting views hurr durr.)
This incident does raise some difficult practical questions. How do you stop
these little fascist assholes sorry HR I mean these tender young minds that we are lovingly shaping into Tomorrow’s Leaders from pulling these sorts of stunts?
One option is to announce a classroom dress code that bans all sartorial political statements, but:
(a) That might be tricky at a public institution (I don’t actually know how first amendment doctrine would apply in this context, and would be interested in thoughts on this); and
(b) I don’t want to ban students from wearing political stuff to class, just fash-racist stuff, like MAGA hats, or something like this t-shirt.
I realize that a rule based on (b) would supposedly make Voltaire and J.S. Mill cry (not really, as anyone who has actually read their thoughts on free expression will recognize). But what are the lines here? I’d like to ask the volks commenting at Taxprof if they would be OK with a student wearing a swastika? How about selectively wearing a swastika only to classes taught by Jewish professors?
Oh but that’s just an outrageous analogy isn’t it? I mean 42% of the country supports Trump, for crying out loud. Are you saying 42% of Americans are fascists? Are you really saying that just because I wear a MAGA hat I’m a racist?
No, but you are wearing a racist’s uniform.