Saturday, September 15, 2018

Call Me "Mr. Bennett:" Race, Respect, and How Students Talk to Teachers

The more I take on the responsibility to lead diverse groups, the more I am aware of the importance of perceptions, symbols and subtleties, and the more I am skeptical of abstract rules. We often fail to communicate what we intend, without fault. I see these mishaps begin the moment we greet a person.

When I started my first job as a law professor, I was 27 years old. I had moved from California to Washington, D.C. to join the faculty of Howard University. I was determined to demonstrate my commitment to equality through informality: I asked students to call me by my first name, “Frank.”

I had not anticipated that at the leading historically black college/university (HBCU), with heavy enrollment from the Deep South, some — many but not all — students were uncomfortable using my first name, while a few presumed a relationship that we did not have. My attempt to be casual did not put people at ease. They defaulted toward formality.

The more I insisted that they were not obligated to address me with any honorifics, the more anxious those in the former category became. They had a sense of propriety that would have impressed my Asian immigrant parents. Their practices were reassuring to them in familiarity.

They were accustomed to saying, “Sir,” with resolute sincerity rather than the typical sarcasm, and they resorted to the colloquial formulation of “Mr. Frank.” If forced to do so, which would be wrong on my part, someone with this tendency would explain that due to their upbringing they simply felt it inappropriate to refer to me as “Frank.” For our purposes, my first name was “Professor,” and theirs was “Mr.” or “Ms.,” or, now and then by request, “Mrs.”

Ironically, my effort to be egalitarian produced the opposite effect. There was a noticeable inequity between those who treated me as more distinguished than I deserved, and those who enjoyed a false sense that we were peers. If that were the case, there would be no reason for me to stand behind the podium delivering a lecture.

I concluded that I was the one who needed to adapt. I was there for the students, not vice versa. I came to understand their expression of respect. It comes from a complex cultural history, associated with more than oppression. Generations ago, an African American who was in domestic service might also be a deacon of a leading church, so the substitution of a single word might take on more significance because of that dichotomy of statuses. I am not surprised that a training program for African American male teachers has been set up as “Call Me Mister.” (Recall the famous line, “They call me Mr. Tibbs” from the classic movie In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier.) Sociolinguists describe, I hope with due regard, these locutions as “hypercorrection.”

As I gained experience elsewhere, I realized my decision should be extended beyond a predominantly black classroom. Independent individuals may assert that they do not display deference to anyone, but their behavior suggests otherwise. Hierarchy is difficult to eliminate. Equality along one axis (teacher to student) generated inequality along another axis (student to student). (Others have noticed similar patterns in how journalists refer to professional athletes.)

The inequality among students correlated to race and gender. The students who were most privileged were those who presupposed we were on a first-name basis even without an invitation in that regard. On some campuses, the students seemed to assume a superiority to their teachers — or at least some of them; my African American female colleagues who are at elite, overwhelmingly white institutions would vouch for me about this problem. I cheer them for taking to task those who would omit “Dr.” when asking a question. They earned that degree their interlocutors might never hold.

I admire the convention at St. John’s College. The Great Books school located in both Annapolis and Santa Fe relies on seminar discussions, embracing what might seem quaint to some nowadays, learning for it’s own sake. The faculty, who are denominated “tutors,” and their students alike use “Mr.” and “Ms.”

It turns out I am no different. As far as I am concerned, my parents lack first names; I am baffled at the notion of youngsters being on a first name basis with their forebears. My father’s first name is “Dad.” I have worked with judges, members of Congress, generals, ambassadors and others with high ranks preceding their given name and various initials following their family name. I have felt gratitude when they regard me as a friend, but I generally cannot bring myself to use their first name if I met them in a professional setting. Even those whom I knew before their appointment or election, whom I have witnessed in less dignified moments, I feel I owe the courtesy of acknowledging their achievement.

These protocols may be as warm as they are cold. It depends on context and other cues. Standing when someone else enters the room, making direct eye contact — these are rituals and signals that are well-established but culturally normed.

My own home is an example. I have always wanted to speak to my wife as “Ms. Izumi.”

She has multiple names. Her Christian name is “Carol.” That is what appears on her business card. Her nickname is “Debbie”: it is an Anglicized shortening of the Japanese word for “fat baby,” which is what her older sister called her when she was a newborn (they are sansei, third-generation Japanese Americans). As she is able to joke, being petite and svelte as an adult, her extended family all know her by the equivalent of “fatso.” A feminist, she has not taken my last name, since “Mrs. Wu” was my late mother. But with some local businesses, such as the dry cleaner, it is convenient for us if our household shares the same name. (Bebe our dog has my last name, but Walter the bird has her last name.)

To be an Anglophile is a cliche of assimilation, no doubt. For those who would have been inferiors in the Empire, the affectation of mimicking its etiquette can only be self-conscious appropriation — with the humor that claims equality at last. I am not sure when it ceased to be common, but my wife’s English period dramas depict spouses using “Mr.” and “Mrs.” with one another. My sister-in-law, who in fact is from London, disdains our preposterous notions from watching altogether too much BBC.

When Carol/Debbie and I saw the last film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, starring Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as the parents of Lizzie (played by Keira Knightley) and her unruly sisters, I noted that the elders refer to one another as “Mrs. Bennett” and “Mr. Bennett.” As we exited the theatre, I said to her, “Why don’t we do that.”

So now when my wife wants my attention, she uses a term of endearment: “Excuse me, Mr. Bennett.”

PS    This semester, I asked students in my class if they wanted to call me "Frank." I told them I was amenable, if they all agreed. They voted against.

This blog originally appeared at Huffington Post.

September 15, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Authoritarianization of U.S. Counterterrorism


A large part of my research involves studying authoritarianism in the Middle East context.  However, the Trump administration's policies and rhetoric over the past eighteen months in the United States have piqued my interest in the degree to which the United States is affected by authoritarianism from within. 

As a starting point in this analysis, I compare the counterterrorism practices of the United States with Egypt to explore how signature practices of authoritarian states arisen due to coordination between the U.S. and Middle East authoritarian states.  This is the topic of my forthcoming article in the Washington & Lee Law Review entitled "The Authoritarianization of U.S. Counterterrorism."

Here is the abstract of the paper, which can be downloaded here.

More than seventeen years since the “War on Terror” began, the United States has failed to recognize how its authoritarian allies, rather than its adversaries, have defined its counterterrorism practices. Western democracies have adopted signature practices of authoritarian regimes. Torture, secret renditions to black sites, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, targeted killings, selective anti-terrorism enforcement against dissidents and minorities, criminalization of political beliefs, and decreased due process rights are among the counterterrorism practices found in both the United States and their Middle East allies, albeit in varying degrees.

Human rights are de-coupled from security, or worse, treated as an impediment to preserving national security. Although the balance between security and liberty has been the topic of lively debate since 9/11, I proffer that the impetus behind rights violations is not limited to perennial tensions between security and liberty in times of war. Increased international coordination in counterterrorism between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies also adversely affects human rights.

As terrorism crosses borders with ease, transnational counterterrorism has become a necessity. International organizations and states coordinate preventing terrorism, identifying and apprehending known terrorists, and prosecuting terrorism suspects between nations. One consequence of such coordination is the normalization of illiberal counterterrorism norms and practices common among democratic nations.

While coordinated counterterrorism is warranted to combat transnational terrorists, the current rights subordinating approach is counterproductive. Western governments that engage in or directly support rights-infringing practices ultimately aid terrorists as they proclaim themselves legitimate defenders against transnational state violence. Aggressive state measures trigger backlash attacks as new grievances arise; thereby feeding a cycle of state and non-state violence at the expense of civilian lives. The challenge for Western democratic nations is to avoid a race to the bottom in their counterterrorism coordination with authoritarian regimes.

The full article can be downloaded here.



September 13, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Good Read: Jackson on Sander’s Mismatch Theory

With the beginning of the new law school year, I have found myself rethinking the literature I use for classes and research. This has led me to encounter new, interesting—and, I think, broadly helpful—books and resources that can further my teaching and research.

In this sprit, and in the spirit of this blog’s efforts to advance scholarship in Critical Race Theory, Race and the Law, and related fields, I want to occasionally share “Good Reads” that may help readers of this blog in advocacy, scholarship, and/or teaching.

Today’s “Good Read” is Black Men in Law School: Unmatched or Mismatched (Routledge 2018) (Amazon link) (CRC Press link) by Darrell D. Jackson at the University of Wyoming.

In this qualitative study, Dr. Jackson critiques Richard Sander’s (in)famous mismatch critique of affirmative action. Critiques of Sander are nothing new, but Jackson’s core (and I think novel) approach is rooted in a straightforward and powerful question:

"What can the experiences and voices of African American male former law school students reveal about race and how it functions in law schools?”

Jackson aptly observes that this question was left out entirely of Sander’s mismatch analysis, and thus he effectively critiques Sander and recognizes a gap in the voluminous literature that attacks the mismatch argument.

Jackson then uses narratives based on interviews of law school students, alumni, and faculty; Critical Race Theory; and other threads of his own research on race in higher education to argue for an alternative framework. His frame is based on demonstrating the reality of struggles of African Americans in law school as well as illustrating the wholistic nature of African American progress in law school—which leads Jackson to offer a lens on the question of understanding African American progress in higher education premised on inclusion in contrast to Sander’s frame of exclusion. Ultimately, Jackson argues that the more appropriate approach to understanding genuine African American progress in law schools is to look at the wholistic development process for historically marginalized students, what Jackson calls his “Process of Progress” heuristic.

Jackson’s book in its grounding in the voices and experiences of African American men offers an important contribution to the ongoing affirmative action debates. Rather than be mired in abstraction, Jackson’s effort seeks to be concrete about the realities of race in law school and to articulate how inclusive practices can nonetheless overcome those negative forces and dispel the mismatch myth (and the stereotyping assumptions behind it). Jackson’s insights would be of use for courses regarding race and the law, education law, and related courses as well as for advocates and professionals who are working on issues of inclusion in law school and the legal profession.

September 5, 2018 | Permalink | Comments (0)