Inequality

Video: Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis – (6th Installment – Economic Inequities)

Here’s the video for the sixth session, held on April 28th, focusing on economic inequities. The discussion was moderated by:

The Panelists were:

The Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis series of zoom webinars is hosted by the Systemic Justice Project on on Tuesdays from 12-1pm EST.

Click here for more information about the webinar series.

Video: Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis – (5th Installment – Criminal Legal System)

Here’s the video for the fifth session, held on April 21st, focusing on the Criminal Legal System. The discussion was moderated by Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton, Co-Directors of the Systemic Justice Project. The Panelists were:

The Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis series of zoom webinars is hosted by the Systemic Justice Project on on Tuesdays from 12-1pm EST.

Click here for more information about the webinar series.

Systemic Lawyering Webinar #6 – Focus on Economic Inequities

Session 6 Systemic Lawyering Webinar 042820

Join this week’s “Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis” Webinar at:  https://harvard.zoom.us/j/770662864.  

This week’s session (Tuesday, April 28, at 12pm EST) will focus on economic inequity in the time of COVID-19. Participants include:

Moderators:

The series features systemically oriented lawyers and activists in fields most affected by our latest crisis. Each session examines the special challenges posed by the crisis, the pressing needs, the new opportunities, and the more general lessons for lawyers, law students, and others committed to promoting systemic change.

For more details about the series, including links to videos of previous sessions, see https://systemicjusticeblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/systemic-lawyering-webinar-series/

You can find a list of previous sessions and links to videos here

If you are a law student looking for ways to pitch in right away: https://www.peoplesparity.org/coronavirus/.

For information about the COVID-19 Rapid Reaction/Systems Summer Institute, go here.

Click here to join the webinars via Zoom: https://harvard.zoom.us/j/770662864.

Video: Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis – (4th Installment – Immigration)

Here’s the video for the fourth session, held on April 14th, focusing on Immigration. The discussion was moderated by Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton, Co-Directors of the Systemic Justice Project. The Panelists were:

The Systemic Lawyering in Times of Crisis series of zoom webinars is hosted by the Systemic Justice Project on on Tuesdays from 12-1pm EST.

Click here for more information about the webinar series.

Capital Punishment and Ineffective Representation

From one of our systemic justice students, here is an illuminating website briefly describing capital punishment in America, focusing in particular in how inadequate representation disadvantages a large number of capital defendants and skews the system against them.  Included is an overview of several inmates in Arkansas who are currently scheduled for execution beginning April 17th and who received wholly ineffective representation.

Historic Settlement in Jennings

Great news from two friends of the Systemic Justice Project:

A small city bordering Ferguson, Mo., has agreed to pay $4.7 million to compensate nearly 2,000 people who spent time in the city’s jail for not paying fines and fees related to traffic and other relatively petty violations.

Alec explains the systemic place of this litigation:

“This historic settlement is part of a national movement to change how indifferent we’ve become to putting human beings in cages, and to end the notion that courts can be used as tools of revenue generation rather than places of justice,” said Alec Karakatsanis, whose Washington-based nonprofit organization, Equal Justice Under Law, brought the suit with the Arch City Defenders, a Missouri nonprofit group, and the St. Louis University School of Law.

See the full New York Times story here.

Why blaming the homeless makes people feel better

Homeless teenage boy and girl

Systemic Justice Project friend, Jay Willis, has recently been writing with insight and wit about the problem of homelessness.  This week, he published the following op-ed in Crosscut

***

In Seattle, the recent explosion in homelessness has transformed the issue into a public emergency, demanding immediate, large-scale intervention. But as the estimated price tags of policy proposals grow, the angry backlash against the city’s homeless residents has intensified. Today, it’s rare to see an opinion on how to address the ongoing crisis that doesn’t make extensive use of the CAPS LOCK key.

Why do people sometimes respond so negatively to those living in crippling poverty? There are a few simple, well-studied psychological strategies that people use to alleviate their inherent unease when confronted with severe inequality. Learning to better understand these unconscious thought processes can foster greater empathy, encourage realistic thinking about the issue, and spur progress toward meaningful solutions.

To illustrate, let’s use reactions to an op-ed I wrote in the Seattle Times last month. In it, I argued that when the city conducts a “sweep” to clear homeless encampments, it’s prohibited from unreasonably seizing and destroying residents’ personal possessions. Although Seattle can regulate its streets, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply only to people who can afford rent.

I know that the first rule of writing on the Internet is to never read the comments. But the responses were interesting, as they so neatly showcase one way homelessness is explained away as an unfortunate yet acceptable fact of city life. Consider, as some commenters did, the idea that it’s okay to not help homeless people, because they like being homeless.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.52.44 PMThe psychologist Melvin Lerner calls this thought process the “Just World Theory”: people prefer to think that they live in a fair, equitable society, and will find ways to view the world as such—even when it requires logical gymnastics to do so.

Do so many of us really think that Seattle’s thousands of homeless residents prefer it that way? When I’ve been able to speak with those who live in The Jungle, not one person expressed any fondness toward spending their nights in five decades worth of blackened highway runoff. But it’s deeply distressing to accept the alternative: that our society freely tolerates human suffering, and that the benefits of the most prosperous period in the region’s history so cleanly elude its most vulnerable residents.

So we do as all self-respecting Seattleites do after each promising Mariners spring that flames out by September: we rationalize, constructing a narrative that explains inequality as the consequence of choices made by free-willed individuals, rather than as a sign of serious societal problems that we are obligated to fix. Reasoning that unsheltered people like living under a freeway — no matter how absurd this is once you stop to think about it — makes this state of affairs much easier to accept.

Others choose to view Seattle’s homeless residents through the “Blame Frame,” a term coined by Jon and Kathleen Hanson. The idea goes like this: when talking about members of our own social group, we tend to attribute good outcomes to having good character. People “like us” succeed because they work hard, put in effort, and happily see it all pay off.

However, when something bad befalls people we consider similar to us, we are quick to explain and exonerate. Something beyond their control—a smart investment gone bad, an employer that went under, the market tanking at just the wrong time—is to blame. “He’s a good guy,” we might say. “Just had some bad luck is all.” After all, we know what kind of person they really are: a good one! Through hard work, they’ll be back on their feet in no time.

We do not afford this same benefit of the doubt to the disadvantaged. Instead, when confronted with bad outcomes experienced by members of other social groups, we blame those people’s inherent character flaws. Just as good people deserve good outcomes, bad people deserve their lot in life, too. “Homeless people do not deserve help because they are lazy drug addicts. They don’t want to work. They have no one to blame but themselves.” Or as two creatively-named commenters put it:

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.53.10 PMSeattleites complain all the time about rising housing costs and the region’s ever-shifting job market. But even as people bemoan the role of these phenomena in their own lives, when it comes to the rise in homelessness, they often won’t connect these issues to it. This is an insidious double standard. By relieving the inclination to develop a nuanced understanding of the plight of Seattle’s homeless residents, the Blame Frame allows us to feel little responsibility to help those who need it.

If all this seems intensely depressing, I present to you a case for hope.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.53.23 PM

This is a valiant attempt to resolve difficult, conflicting emotions. (Is it you? If so, email me, and I’ll buy you a drink.) The author first tacks to the concepts outlined above, asserting that homeless people who “like their way of living” do not “deserve” help. But just a few lines later, they acknowledge an important tension: they do want to help those who are homeless due to “bad luck.”

This person recognizes that so much more probably goes into homelessness than any one individual’s decisions. And like many of us, he or she is trying to work these dissonant feelings out.

To be clear: the psychological concepts presented here are natural and unconscious. This means that no one — including you or me — is a malevolent person for sometimes wondering if homelessness is a lifestyle choice, or for wanting to blame the homeless for their own misfortune. But acknowledging how our reactions to complex social problems fail to capture all sides of the story is a critical missing step in Seattle’s discourse on homelessness.

By better understanding what goes on in our own heads, we can help foster more critical thinking about what causes homelessness, and, just maybe, how best to solve it.

***

See related articles:

Reflections on Real Talk: An Introduction

Real Talk LogoIn fall 2015 the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), in collaboration with the Systemic Justice Project (SJP), launched a joint initiative for Harvard Law School (HLS) students called Real Talk – a series of small group facilitated dialogues and curated events on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The initiative developed from a shared interest of HNMCP and SJP to promote dialogue among HLS students on how legal education can, at times, unwittingly silence student voices and experiences, especially as these experiences relate to identity and personal narrative.

Real Talk is an initial effort to provide a forum for HLS students to learn with and from each other— encouraging genuine conversation around challenging issues, emotions, and narratives that relate to the law, legal systems, and legal education; a forum that promotes an inclusivity and openness that can often become stymied in traditional law school classrooms; and a forum that promotes respect, understanding, curiosity about the other, and a willingness to be “raggedy” even in our deepest moments of difference and dissent. For HNMCP, Real Talk represents the first manifestation of what we hope will be a new, larger dialogue and facilitation initiative.  For SJP, Real Talk is part of a general commitment to encouraging conversations about diversity and inclusion in legal education and, more generally, about systemic problems in society.

The pilot program brought together a small number of HLS student participants, trained student facilitators, and faculty advisors in an innovative experiment of facilitated dialogue and open engagement. We were fortunate to recruit four student facilitators who have extensive facilitation training and experience, each having taken the HLS Lawyer as Facilitator and the HLS Negotiation Workshop. These facilitators led small groups of six participants (composed of first and third year law students) in four dialogue sessions throughout the fall semester. These dialogues were bolstered by several events – Fighting Debtor’s Prison in Ferguson,[1] After Ferguson, Baltimore, New York: Strategies for Systemic Change,[2] and On the Battlefield of Merit: the History of Harvard Law School[3] – that served as the basis for two of the dialogue sessions.

The first round of Real Talk was met with decisive gratitude. Participant feedback indicated that the program provided a much-needed environment to express their experiences and perspectives, listen to the stories and views of others, and to share and receive a sense of empathetic understanding. In talking with students throughout the initiative, we developed an even deeper appreciation for how important spaces for authenticity, reflection, vulnerability, and conflictedness are in higher education and legal training.

We also were reminded that creating those fora is typically fraught and complex. Our preparation and review sessions with facilitators highlighted many challenges to creating open dialogue. What is the role of neutrality in facilitating dialogue on equity and inclusion? What might be the role of power and privilege in dialogue facilitation? What impact does the facilitator’s identity have on discussion and how does a facilitator manage them? How does participant composition across identity, background, and status affect the dialogue experience and what are the implications (if any) for convening such groups? We gathered that there is great value in deeper and more nuanced facilitation training at HLS, as well as a great need for HLS students to receive training on engaging in dialogue as a participant. And, as with most worthy experiences, we were pleased to have left with as many questions as “answers.”

Now, we have invited the facilitators from Real Talk – Ariel Eckblad ‘16, Deanna Parrish ’16, Carson Wheet ‘16, and Lindsey Whyte ‘16 – to share their reflections through a series of blog posts. We will publish one blog post from a different facilitator each week. Their posts touch on the themes mentioned above, as well as others, providing an inside look into their experiences, lessons, and questions from Real Talk. We hope that you enjoy these pieces, and that you will join us as we seek to dig more deeply into this important work.

By Robert C. Bordone, Jon Hanson, Jacob Lipton, and Sam W. Straus

[1] A panel discussion with Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders and Alec Karakatsanis ’08, Co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law.
[2] A panel discussion with Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, Chiraag Bains ’08: Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division, Marbre Stahly-Butts: Center for Popular Democracy, and Alec Karakatsanis’08, Co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law.
[3] A lecture and discussion with Dan Coquillette, Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School.

 

Whitney Benns and Blake Strode on Systemic Racism

jail bars

Systemic Justice Project alums Whitney Benns and Blake Strode have a powerful and vital piece in The Atlantic about 21st century debtors’ prisons in St. Louis, but really about systemic racism. They write:

As the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional—there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.

Whitney and Blake use the terminology of systemic intent to explode the false dichotomy between individual intent (which is easy to isolate and condemn) and amorphous systems (identification of which as often leads to helpless shrugs as to calls for action):

There is a tendency to understand intent, much like racism itself, as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real and destructive. But the systemic intent at work in a place like St. Louis is more a matter of inertia than personal biases. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the system has a life of its own. Local courts and jails are not rife with injustice and racial disparity because they are staffed with ill-meaning personnel; they exhibit these problems because they are the product of structures and policies designed with racial hostility. That is to say, ultimately, these structures and policies have worked precisely as planned.

Their weaving together of the individual and the systemic reminds us that it is the decades of deliberately racist intent that allows racism today to be hidden “in the seemingly colorblind tedium characterizing the bulk of city affairs.”

The story of the debtors’-prison crisis in St. Louis is partly one of individual failings by local officials and institutional actors whose job security depends on collective indifference to the status quo. But to regard the story solely, or primarily, as one of individual failings is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem itself as well as the structural forces responsible for the design of the region. This design did not emerge last week, last month or last year. It is the many-headed hydra produced by conscious and sustained efforts many decades ago.

I highly, highly recommend that you read the full piece here.

You Have to Start Somewhere: Whitesplaining Harvard Law School’s Crest, Black Electrical Tape, and a Better College Campus

HLS Defacement

By SJP Friend Jay Willis (reposted from Needs Further Review):

With increasing frequency, students on college campuses across the country are forcing their  old, proud, veritable institutions of higher education to think critically and honestly about the echoes of entrenched racism on their campuses. Results have been…varied. At Georgetown, students recently successfully lobbied to rename a building named after a university president who used the proceeds from slave sales to pay the university’s bills. At Yale, there is an ongoing debate regarding the propriety of naming one of the university’s residential colleges after noted white supremacist and vocal slavery supporter John Calhoun. (So far, nothing doing). And at Harvard Law School, students have taken issue with the school’s crest.

Why the crest? Appearing nowhere on any list of “Fun Facts” about HLS is the fact it was founded in 1817 with a bequest from the estate of one Isaac Royall, a hilariously wealthy Antiguan plantation owner who, in addition to indirectly founding the world’s most famous law school, also suppressed a mid-drought slave revolt in 1736 by hanging six, breaking five on a medieval torture wheel, and burning 77 more at the stake. Harvard still uses the Royall family coat-of-arms as its crest, a rather unsettling fact about which more than a few professors have repeatedly and frankly expressed their discomfort (for example, when now-Justice Elena Kagan and Professor Martha Minow assumed the deanship, they both declined the traditional dean’s title of “Royall Professor of Law” for this reason).

In the largest building on campus, Wasserstein Hall, a series of small black-and-white portraits of the school’s tenured professors lines the first two floors. As far as I know, once a professor receives tenure, their portrait stays there forever. It’s a nice and fairly innocuous way to connect the present to the past; mostly, the suspenders- and pleats-laden portraits are there to show you just how handsome your ancient Property professor was as a young man, and/or to serve as a cautionary tale regarding apparently-once-trendy wardrobe choices. On Wednesday, November 18th, students from all Harvard schools, undergraduates and graduate students alike, marched in support of the protests at the University of Missouri. Some law students placed black electrical tape over the HLS crest that appears in Wasserstein Hall. On Thursday, November 19th, they arrived at class to find the same tape repurposed to deface the portraits of their African-American professors instead.

I saw this posted online by my friend Jonathan Wall, who, since I am now three full years out of law school, is the only person I know there anymore. It was more than a little surreal to see a longstanding throwaway aspect of the school’s interior decorating scheme so suddenly elevated in importance for such a terrible reason. Black students, shocked and outraged and afraid, spoke out about how incidents like this make them feel unsafe and uncertain and and unwelcome. About how they spend their entire academic careers (and then after that, their career careers) wondering if their professors and peers take them seriously or consider them products of affirmative action or diversity initiatives. And about how seemingly right when they start to think, no, I’ve got this, I belong here, something like this happens to bring it all tumbling town.

It is impossible to ask students of color to arrive at school, take this all in, and then to stride confidently past these portraits and into a classroom and pretend like everything is fine and take diligent notes on the Rule Against Perpetuities (note: it is always the Rule Against Perpetuities) or whatever. All students, irrespective of race, are trying to pull off the already-tough-enough task of going to lecture and taking notes and studying for tests and writing papers and making friends and falling in love and getting drunk at bar review and falling out of love and being kids and growing up, all at the same damn time. But students of color must also grapple with the daily reverberations of a legacy of racial discrimination and try and figure out how that fits into their puzzle, too. They’re at the same school, on the same campus, and in the same classrooms as white students. But on days like last Thursday, it has to feel a world away. Black students cannot have the same experience as white students when they know that any day could be interrupted by racism in a way that requires them to drop everything, consider, and respond.

This sounds…exhausting. Yale student Aaron Lewis describes how many students of color have got to feel at this point:

Students should not have to become community organizers just to receive acknowledgement and respect from their administrators. It’s disheartening to feel like so few people in power have your back. Yes, we are angry. We are tired. We are emotionally drained. We feel like we have to yell in order to make our voices heard.

Right. I can understand that this must be horrible. I can even understand how horrible it probably is (as in, “very”). I can understand that it is a frightening, disheartening burden that on some days just makes them want to disappear, except they know that that is exactly what some people want them to do, so they instead have to find ways to manage and to move on. But no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I put on my Obama t-shirt and spin around in a circle in front of the mirror and shut my eyes tightly and whisper “post-racial society,” I can never actually feel the way that students of color of do. I can’t know what it is like to have my skin crawl as I walk past Slavery Hall, or how it feels to have the response to my protests be the publicly vandalized faces of the professors who look like me. Being a member of a group that is constantly subject to both overt and institutional speculation, scrutiny, and scorn is an experience I cannot know, because neither I nor anyone who looks like me has any way of doing so.

By itself, that’s not the problem, because short of pulling a Jess Row, there isn’t much I can do about it. The problem is instead that because there are more white people than black people in higher education, and those white people have grown mighty used to running things for several centuries now, black students’ license to express their discomfort and their discontent, and their ideas for addressing those feelings, is almost entirely contingent on white people’s willingness to hear them out and, hopefully, to take their word for it. Black students are authorized to voice their concerns only for so long as enough white people look at the purported problem and decide, sure, if you say that this is a problem, we will entertain proposals to do something else instead. Black students can make inroads against intolerance and demand systemic change as long as the majority finds the message acceptable, the methods nonthreatening, and the goals reasonable enough (all of which are metrics set by, again, generations of white people). And the moment that the powers that be decide that, no, this isn’t a real problem, you all need to calm down and quit complaining and find something more serious to get worked up about, all that momentum is suddenly and arbitrarily extinguished.

This dynamic is nicely encapsulated in that bastion of Old White People Who Know What’s Best: op-ed pages. Take this collection of drivel-laden paragraphs masquerading as an intelligent thought written by Colin McEnroe, that one second cousin that you dread having to talk to at Thanksgiving dinner, whose column in the Hartford (CT) Courant has some scorching Baby Boomer-era wisdom for today’s students who have the gall to object to racist things about which he has never thought (all emphasis mine).

I’ve got this to say to the Yale students engaged in bristling, expectorating confrontations with authority: You’re overindulged. You don’t know how to act right.

This just kind of feels like a paragraph from which an editor excised the word “uppity,” right?

You’ve come so completely unglued in a very low-stakes game that it’s tempting to conclude you’d be useless if the going ever got tough.

I want to crush this take up into a powder and sell it in baggies.

There’s not enough on the line. One of my favorite tweets from the week — I’ve lost track of the tweetist — was “When did students go from protesting the Vietnam War to protesting being offended?”

Ah yes. NOTHING IS AS BAD AS VIETNAM, YOU KIDS DON’T UNDERSTAND. Later:

The 2015 counter-argument — and it’s not a specious one — is that white, male, hegemonic figures like [Yale President Kingman] Brewster and me can’t even imagine how that risk is lived and felt by more vulnerable minorities.

Wait…wait, yes, that’s exactly the point that students are trying to make here! Okay, so you get it! Hey, maybe this isn’t so bad after all, and maybe there is some hope at arriving at a more nuanced cultural understa–

Point taken, kids. But call me when you’ve got a big issue. Meanwhile, understand that mom and dad aren’t there anymore with the Purell and the wipes. 

[retches]

You should read the rest of Mr. McEnroe’s column if you suffer from hypotension or insufficient rage or something, but those excerpts nicely summarize the crux of the institutional response to minority students’ pleas to a system of authority that was never built to hear them in the first place. Black students, your protests are tolerated until we decide that they are not any longer. Then, you are coddled, entitled, thin-skinned Millennial wolf-criers who cannot distinguish between a few minor slights and real, true adversity (WHICH, AGAIN, = VIETNAM WAR)

This is not a tenable state of affairs. Students of color already bear the burden of parrying not only overt discrimination but also the daily slights that slowly rob you of the will to try anymore. How many professors think they’re occupying the seat of a more qualified white student? How many students think that? How many people stop listening to them when they decide to speak in class? Did I get this bad grade on my paper because of race? Wait, did I get this good grade on my paper because of race? McEnroe and his ilk accuse black students of perceiving injustice where there is none, of playing the race card, of viewing everything through a racial prism. But this fails to acknowledge that black students have spent their whole lives being viewed through a racial prism. Why are they expected to not do the same thing?

At the same time, the university expects and demands that black students put their heads down, be thankful, and act like they’re comfortable. Well, hey, you made it here, too. You’re just like everyone else. Stop asking for special treatment. Why is it always black people talking about race? But the need for honest discussions about race in higher education is, by definition, a need that will be plain only to minority students. You never hear discussions of the pressing need for greater recognition of Western European culture in university curriculum because, um, Western European culture is just called “university curriculum.” White students don’t complain about the relationship between culture and pedagogy because that has never been a problem they have had to deal with. Black students who want to talk about race are not oversensitive or hysterical. Their desire simply reflects the reality that they are the only ones who have ever had to think about it.

The final piece of this really, really bleak puzzle is that many universities have responded not by formally examining their own practices but instead by tasking minority students with engaging in extracurricular guerrilla diversity. Students are expected to blend seamlessly into the academic environment while also serving as occasional unpaid spokespersons of The Minority Experience. My friend Andrew sent me a piece by one Alana Massey, who spoke out against the narrative that black students are responsible for teaching their peers about diversity and acceptance. Black students are there for the same reasons as anyone else, Massey argues: to get an education. Yet they find themselves conscripted as diversity ambassadors to a student body that is under no obligation to actually listen. This layer reveals the most insidious double (triple?) standard of all: black students are allowed to lobby for change, but only if the powers that be deem their requests acceptable, and then, only if they accept all responsibility for doing so. It is the job of universities, not the students of color who attend and pay tuition, to provide a holistic education. But universities have gotten very, very good at outsourcing that task.

There is no simple solution to these problems, though if you have any ideas, please tell them to me so that I can write about them and pass them off as my own. But I do think that there is a simple first step. Colin McEnroe won’t like it. Here it is anyway: listen to black students, about everything, and take their word for it, and do what they say, and then see what happens.

The powers that be need to stop analyzing every call for change to see if it is an acceptable de minimis tweak to The Way Things Ought To Be. They need to stop evaluating alternate viewpoints in light of what is easiest, or what is within the scope of preserving History or Tradition, or what they think will address the problem even when students plead for something else. Stop sneeringly wondering if “all this hubbub” about old building names is warranted. Stop dismissing suggestions for more inclusive curriculum as the naive complaints of entitled Millennials (SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING VIETNAM), or as the calculated requests of lazy students unwilling to subject themselves to rigorous academic standards, or both. Stop telling people to just calm down, to relax, and to not make such a big deal out of everything. Start listening instead.

The American university is a remarkably successful institution. It is also four hundred years old and has, up until only very recently, been almost completely dominated by white people. While minorities of course now occupy some positions of power, the system in which they operate still favors the majority. So why blindly defend the integrity of an institution that only welcomes certain points of view regarding what counts as offensive, and what is okay? Why not give another way of making decisions a try, and see if a more inclusive place can work just as well?

I willingly concede that buildings named after long-dead racists and antiquated crests borrowed from long-forgetten bloodthirsty torturers are not the most significant problems that face minority students today. And renaming every single building and disposing of every offensive symbol would not be a panacea for racism on campus. But it does not follow that universities should therefore ignore things like this completely. Universities that sincerely engage with students on even seemingly minor issues build trust, and universities that balk or fight back in the name of “dealing with the Real Problems on Campus” only exacerbate the perception of imbalanced power dynamics as firmly entrenched. If administrators won’t listen to earnest requests for renaming one stupid building, how are black students supposed to envision a world in which administrators also care about ending racial profiling or unequal access or de facto segregation or any of the other Real Problems on Campus, too?

The fact that a change is simple and easy does not mean it is not worthwhile. Symbolism counts. Trivial though they may seem to some, building names and school logos are as good a place to start as any.

Get much more of Jay’s insightful analysis at Needs Further Review.