Posted on July 10, 2019

Seeing Red: A Professor Coexists with ‘MAGA’ in the Classroom

Jeffrey Omari, ABA Journal, July 3, 2019

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. {snip}

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.”

{snip} 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.

{snip}

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.

{snip} 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.

As my blood boiled inwardly, outwardly I remained calm. In an effort to assuage the perceived tension, I jokingly told the student, “I like your hat,” when he raised his hand to participate in class discussion. Without missing a beat, the student mockingly grinned from ear to ear and said, “Thank you.”

{snip}

{snip} Several of my colleagues took an intellectual approach when answering this question. For instance, some suggested that I remain professional, which to them meant ignoring the student and not bringing attention to his hat.

{snip} Yet, while offered with kindness and good intentions, these suggestions often fail to mitigate the visceral feelings of exclusion that African Americans and other faculty of color encounter in the academy. Such feelings are a contributing factor to the low retention rates of students and faculty of color at certain institutions and also play a part in the high rates of mental health issues experienced by many of those in higher educational settings.

{snip}

In times of such heightened political disparity, decision makers in institutions of higher education should weigh the benefits of exclusionary, in-class political speech against the divisive burdens such speech places on students, staff and faculty.

{snip} To be certain, however, in academic settings “making America great again” suggests a return to the days when women and people of color were denied access to these very institutions.