Law professor Eugene Volokh on UC’s racial “microagressions” policy

From his Washington Post law blog, here:

One of the latest things in universities, including at University of California (where I teach) is condemning “microaggressions,” supposed “brief, subtle verbal or non-verbal exchanges that send denigrating messages to the recipient because of his or her group membership (such as race, gender, age or socio-economic status).” Such microaggressions, the argument goes, can lead to a “hostile learning environment,” which UC — and the federal government — views as legally actionable. This is stuff you could get disciplined or fired for, especially if you aren’t a tenured faculty member.

But of course this concept is now being used to suppress not just, say, personal insults or discrimination in hiring or grading, but also ideas that the UC wants to exclude from university classrooms. Here, from the UC Office of the President, Academic and Personnel Programs department’s site(promoted, for instance, here, here, and here), are some of what the UC wants to see stamped out, in classrooms and presumably elsewhere as well:

Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014). The first step in addressing microaggressions is to recognize when a microaggression has occurred and what message it may be sending. The context of the relationship and situation is critical. Below are common themes to which microaggressions attach….

[Theme:] Color Blindness[:] Statements that indicate that a White person does not want to or need to acknowledge race.

[Microaggression Examples:] “There is only one race, the human race.”
“America is a melting pot.”
“I don’t believe in race.” …

[Theme:] Denial of Individual Racism/Sexism/Heterosexism[:] A statement made when bias is denied….

[Microaggression Examples:] … To a person of color: “Are you sure you were being followed in the store? I can’t believe it.” …

[Theme:] Myth of Meritocracy[:] Statements which assert that race or gender does not play a role in
life successes, for example in issues like faculty demographics.

[Microaggression Examples:] “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
“Of course he’ll get tenure, even though he hasn’t published much — he’s Black!”
“Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.”
“Gender plays no part in who we hire.”
“America is the land of opportunity.”
“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”
“Affirmative action is racist.”

Well, I’m happy to say that I’m just going to keep on microaggressing. I like to think that I’m generally polite, so I won’t express these views rudely. And I try not to inject my own irrelevant opinions into classes I teach, so there are many situations in which I won’t bring up these views simply because it’s not my job to express my views in those contexts. But the document that I quote isn’t about keeping classes on-topic or preventing presonal insults — it’s about suppressing particular viewpoints. And what’s tenure for, if not to resist these attempts to stop the expression of unpopular views? …

Fortunately UC is already backing down, and this sort of policy could never be imposed at UO, given our strong – and hard wonFree Speech and Academic Freedom policies.

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4 Responses to Law professor Eugene Volokh on UC’s racial “microagressions” policy

  1. just different says:

    Most of Volokh’s examples do in fact suggest that the person saying them is a clueless bigot. But I agree that suppressing “microaggressions” is both senseless and a violation of academic freedom. The problem isn’t the remarks; it’s the ignorant attitude behind them. I prefer it when bigots are up-front and honest about it.

  2. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    “America is the land of opportunity.”

    A lot of my salary (plus fine benefits) paid by foreign, er, international students who believe something like this — especially to judge by graduation day. Come to think of it, I’ve had quite a few international colleagues who seemed to feel the same way — especially those who moved on to greener pastures. Even those who got stirred a bit roughly in the melting pot, er, diversity stew. Microagressive thinking on their part,?

    • just different says:

      I am hoping you are not just pretending to misunderstand the point here. Whether “land of opportunity” or “melting pot” language is subtly racist depends on context. For example, these expressions are often used to imply that everyone gets a fair chance to succeed or that immigrants and minorities should “assimilate.”

      • honest Uncle Bernie says:

        Well, what would be so bad about thinking that basically it is a “land of opportunity”? Maybe telling people otherwise — discouraging them from making the most of things– could be what is racist? Maybe having an opportunity “to assimilate” is what most people basically want? It certainly appears that way to me. It was certainly true of my immigrant grandparents and their children (even though they certainly received more than today’s average share of abuse, even among the supposedly oppressed minorities). Were they victims of false consciousness? Were they being autoracists? You have a right to say so, they would scoff and then say to hell with you!