Chris Uggen's Blog: kiwi camara and racist speech

Monday, December 26, 2005

kiwi camara and racist speech

volokh reports a strange tale involving the yale law journal's decision to publish an author who used racist speech in his online notes. kiwi camara posted notes from his property class in a harvard law outline bank, complete with a "disclaimer" noting that they "may contain racially offensive shorthand."

on shelley v. kraemer, a case involving racially restrictive covenants, camara wrote: "Nigs buy land with no nig covenant; Q: Enforceable?"

yep! that counts as "racially offensive shorthand" in my book. when the notes came to light, yale law students circulated a petition that began as follows:

We, the undersigned students of Yale Law School, request that the leadership of the Yale Law Journal reconsider its decision to publish the work of Kiwi Camara and to have him speak at its Symposium this Spring...

yale law journal nevertheless decided to publish, writing a lengthy response in defense of its decision. as social scientists who've written for such outlets know, law reviews operate way, way, way differently than american sociological review or criminology. law faculty submit the same article to dozens of journals simultaneously. then, student-run editorial boards read them all and make offers to those deemed worthy. after the faculty ruthlessly exploit the free labor of the law students, however, the students exact vengeance by obsessively critiquing every footnote. here's the sort of email exchange that plays out over a few weeks:

journal: please provide a citation to your assertion on page 1 that "criminologists study the life course."
author: no problem. please cite as "sampson and laub 1993."
journal: i will need a page number for this citation.
author: ok, let's go with page 8.
journal: sampson and laub make a related point on page 8, noting that the life course "is studied" and that criminologists study "crime" but they do not indicate that "criminologists study the life course." please provide a proper citation. with page numbers.
author: i tell you what -- let's just strike the sentence and any other references to criminologists studying the life course.
journal: we will strike the sentence if you really think that is best.

but i digress. there are all sorts of distracting digressions to this case. for example, the precocious mr. camara was age 17 when he wrote the notes, which led some lawprofs to the "adolescent racist boys will be adolescent racist boys" defense. the very clever but slightly-less-precocious students, in contrast, think that the doogie howsers of the world should be held to the same standards as any other students. finally, mr. camara has issued something sort of like an apology. still, this doesn't address the larger issue of whether to publish work by known or suspected racists (or sexists, or homophobes...).

i'm guessing that most sociology journals "pre-ject" papers by known or suspected racists, sending them out for external review but reading them and their reviews with a jaundiced eye. if such sentiments came to light following formal acceptance, however, they would likely abide by their publication decision unless (and this is an important 'unless') such sentiments had some plausible bearing on the article's findings or conclusions. what about your favorite sociology and criminology journals? would they, could they, withdraw their acceptance on the basis of offensive speech that came to light? is racist speech different than other forms of offensive speech in this regard?

now that i think about it, i remember writing racist speech in my first year sociology notes --quotes taken verbatim from durkheim and weber.


At 4:46 PM, Blogger jeremy said...

I'm not sure why you consider Camara's remarks to be something less than an apology.

At 5:29 PM, Anonymous chris said...

jeremy, i was too snarky in my characterization. in the end, he did apologize. i had originally linked to this 2002 harvard law record interview where he seemed much less contrite and, in my opinion (and not that of my employer or anyone else), just a little bit creepy about it:

"When asked why he uses the word, Camara replied, "I avoid the word strenuously in public conversation, I don't think the general pejorative conception of the word captures my views on race..."

"...I know that occasionally offensive things slip into my private work, so why don't I warn people that if you would be offended by such things, don't look.'"

Looking back Camara said that he realizes that he should not have posted the outlines and agrees that they were properly removed. He also said that in the future he would make an effort not use similar words, even privately.

"I will make a much more conscious attempt than I have made not to do so. I can't guarantee it. I certainly will not be sharing anything further on HLCentral," he said.

so, my reaction is based on this "avoiding the word in public conversation," "don't look" warning if you might be offended, and "can't guarantee" not making similar statements.

in fairness, the apology of the 18th seems like a real apology, albeit one written by an attorney. my reading of it is colored by mr. camara's earlier response in the record, the fact that he issued a "disclaimer" without apology, and by his use of "Nigs" as an abbreviation in the first place. none of this speaks to the possible motives or intent of the current apology, but it does provide a little backstory.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger jeremy said...

Yes, after writing my comment I looked up the story more and agree that earlier apologies are far less satisfying. A weird case, to be sure.

At 9:13 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

from what i read so far about the case, it seems to me that YLJ editorial staff dealt appropriately with the issue. i particularly liked the letter written by its editor-in-chief.

but the problem is much larger, as chris pointed out well: for example, "what about your favorite sociology and criminology journals? would they, could they, withdraw their acceptance on the basis of offensive speech that came to light?"

one thing to bear in mind is that people do change, and that if camara was 17 (three years ago) when he wrote the notes one should allow a change in attitude/character since then.

similar, albeit much more controversial issue arose when it was discovered that famous yale literary critic paul de man was writing nazi propaganda articles during the second world war, while in belgium. he was lucky that those articles that he wrote when he was, i think, approximately camara's age, were found after his death. many people tried to reread his writings in the light of this historical finding, but there was nothing that seemed to have any pro-nazi elements. nor none nazi-elements were found in his public or private actitivites. the conclusion seemed to be: the man (de man) changed. so, it could be wise to allow camara to change as well.

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous valerio said...

i forgot to point out: there were no nazi-elements found in de man's writings after WWII.

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

I'm curious as to what might make one a "suspected" racist, sexist, homophobe, etc?

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous chris said...

good points, valerio. i've spent my career studying change in criminal and antisocial behavior. my guess is that there is a great deal of within-person change in racism or other bigoted attitudes -- particularly in the adolescent and young adult stages of the life course. in my soc of deviance class, some students have described such changes in themselves (e.g., they entered college as homophobes but changed in response to new information; others entered the military and changed their attitudes about race).

sarah, i used the "suspected" language because few people today self-identify as racists. camara's case shows how we infer certain attitudes based on a few scattered statements, but we can't really access anyone's deeply held beliefs. who knows what he (or you or me) really thinks? also, such terms mean different things to different people. [in madison social services 20 years ago, we were taught that we were all bigoted in some way -- the question wasn't whether one is racist or sexist or homophobic, but what is one going to do about it? this affected me enough that i still grade all my essay exams and papers anonymously, so no conscious or subconscious biases can affect my grading] in practice, though, i think "suspected" tends to show up as "he has problems with women" or "she's really weird with students of color" when there is some pattern of low-level offensive behavior but no smoking- gun-david-duke "i am a racist" statement.

At 11:33 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

I just wanted to make sure we weren't going on a witch-hunt, as I tend to agree with the "we are all bigoted in some way but it matters what we do about it" philosophy. I recently had a dream (nightmare?) that I wanted to run for public office (something I would never do!) but that I decided not to because of some claim I thought might be made about me (true or not) that would lead to too much personal scrutiny and pain. Maybe it's my recent viewing of "Good Night and Good Luck" or something. Anyway, I get nervous when I hear or read language that hints at holding people to subjective standards (I would still say that "low-level offensive behavior" is a subjective measure) that perhaps really none of us can live up to anyway. Of course, this doesn't stop me from making the occasional accusation from time to time...

At 9:54 PM, Anonymous chris said...

sarah, you've got my vote. someone needs to help bring minnesota values -- great education and a social safety net that protects everyone's dignity -- back to minnesota.


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