Gonzaga University School of Law Visiting Law Professor Jeffrey Omari has written a column in the ABA Journal that demonstrates the increasingly shrill environment faced by conservative students. Omari took to the pages of the Journal to recount his almost breathless encounter with a student wearing a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat. Most of us are used to students wearing political hats and teeshirts. I am always happy to see students with such clothing because it shows that they are engaged and passionate regardless of their views. For Omari, the incident was chilling since he declares the MAGA hats worn by many conservatives to be per se racist symbols.
Omari insisted that anyone wearing the hats are advancing “racial antagonism” since they are an “undeniable symbol of white supremacy”:
“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.”
The hats are the campaign symbol of Donald Trump and many support his policies. Yet, Omari insists “For its supporters, MAGA indexes an effort to return to a time in American history when this country was “great” for some—particularly, propertied white men—but brutally exclusionary for others, most notably women and people of color.” So Trump supporters want to return to a time of brutal suppression of women and people of color?
Omari goes on to describe how he responded, as if a live cougar was thrown into a closed space:
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.”
. . .
With this scholarship in mind, I understood why no one else in this particular class—in which whites outnumbered students of color 20 to three (with me, the instructor, being the lone African American)—seemed as vexed as I was. Indeed, in a class with such racial uniformity, it appeared frivolous to rely on students to speak up on my behalf, as one of my associates suggested. 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.
It is interesting how Omari’s statement about “liking your hat” was not mocking but the student’s response of “thank you” was mocking. It was also insulting to say that, because the fact that the other students were white, it was “frivolous to rely on students to speak up on [his] behalf.” It was frivolous not because of race but because his point was frivolous. The mere fact that some kid wears a MAGA hat does not mean that he is a racist or that he is trying to racially intimidate an African-American professor.
Omari simply concludes that the hat was by definition improper and inciting but that he would receive no support given his position and race:
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.
Of course, it would have been an “uphill battle” to ask for the removal of the hat unless he was asking for the removal of all hats and clothing of all political viewpoints from Antifa hats to pro-choice hats to NRA hats. Omari assumed that the interpretation of the hat (which is not shared by many) was manifestly true. This is part of the trend that we have discussed on campuses where speech is being curtailed as racist or microaggressive based on how it is perceived by others as opposed to how it is intended. In this case, the hat has different meaning to different people. Yet, Omari believes that it should have been barred from the classroom.
Nevertheless, The ABA Journal thought that this harrowing encounter with a MAGA hat in a class warranted publication. Why?