Thursday, December 1, 2016

Combatting "Deeply Intertwined" Discriminatory Harassment in our Schools Post-2016 Elections (Professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo)

In 1970, African-American lesbian feminist civil rights lawyer and Episcopal minister Pauli Murray wrote that “racism and sexism in the United States… are so deeply intertwined in the country’s institutions that the successful outcome of the struggle against racism will depend in large part upon the simultaneous elimination of all discrimination based upon sex.”  Five years earlier, Murray and a co-author advised that “sex discrimination can be better understood if compared with race discrimination and … the similarities of the two problems can be helpful in improving … the legal status of women.”

After a campaign where the now President-Elect poured forth slurs against many underrepresented groups and the press uncovered a recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, this wisdom from a great civil rights activist could not be more relevant or prescient.  In the weeks since the election, the flood of reports of harassment and violent threats against individuals in these same groups by self-proclaimed Trump supporters has burst forth across the nation, including on college and university campuses like the University of Pennsylvania, where virtually immediately following the election, all black Freshmen received messages containing racial epithets and a “daily lynching” calendar.  Particularly when combined with other in-person harassment at Penn that week, many students talked about feeling unsafe, sounded traumatized, and are likely experiencing all the disruption to their educations that inevitably occurs as a result of such fear and discrimination.

The Penn incident brings to mind several connections that Reverend Murray would recognize.  At Dartmouth College in 2014, a “rape guide” posted online targeted a first-year woman student who later reported that she was assaulted at the first party she attended after the posting appeared.  Her experience apparently fit a common pattern of such harassment and threats directed at women Dartmouth students via the website.  The next year, a leader of “Feminists United” at University of Mary Washington was murdered by a fellow student after Feminist United members had been repeatedly threatened and harassed over a social media app called Yik Yak.  Even though no one in either case appears to have alleged a direct connection between the violence and the pattern of harassment and violent threats leading up to it, the potential connections undoubtedly helped bring national attention to these cases.

The larger phenomenon that the Dartmouth, UMW, and now Penn cases exemplify provide lessons for all of us to—as Reverend Murray might say—better understand how to improve our campus communities’ responses to discriminatory harassment directed at many vulnerable groups, not only harassment of women.  Many colleges and universities have recently improved their campus sexual harassment and violence prevention systems by, for instance, recognizing how fear and trauma can disrupt students’ educations in a discriminatory way and by adopting trauma-informed practices to minimize that disruption as much as possible.  Those insights should inform campuses’ responses to student victims of all forms of discriminatory harassment, including the Penn students targeted last week. 

In addition, these incidents remind us of how “deeply intertwined” all variations of discriminatory harassment are and why we need to resist efforts to treat some forms of such discrimination more seriously than others.  Since August, over 100 law professors have signed a White Paper supporting steps taken in recent years by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that reinforce its commitment to combat disability-based, gender-based, racial and sexual harassment equally strongly.  Post-2016 election, all of us in education must do our part to reach Reverend Murray’s goal: the “simultaneous elimination of all discrimination,” including all discriminatory harassment against students in our schools.

by Nancy Chi Cantalupo, Assistant Professor, Barry School of Law

--This blog is part of an online symposium hosted by the Race and the Law Profs Blog examining the implications of a Trump administration on women, racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, disabled persons, and other historically subordinated groups.

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