Letters from Our Readers

As nation debates racism, readers respond to controversial 'MAGA' column

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The ABA Journal’s July 3 Your Voice piece “Seeing Red: A professor coexists with ‘MAGA’ in the classroom” by Jeffrey Omari, has drawn a large number of comments and a lively discussion around the topics of the First Amendment and racism. Below is a sampling of reader responses to Omari’s column.

Dear Professor Omari,

I just read your article, “Seeing Red” in the ABA Journal and I must respectfully take issue with some of your generalizations and statements, which are, to say the least, unsubstantiated.

I will not refute your interpretation of the interaction, which occurred in your class with the MAGA hat-wearing student because I wasn’t there and therefore have no way of accessing that particular student’s intention. I would point out that likewise—and although you explained why you didn’t—you, yourself, did not inquire whether his intention was to offend you or give him an opportunity to respond by telling him that you were, in fact, offended. So, we really have no way of knowing, other than by your feeling, whether the student in fact meant to offend you. Or perhaps you were mistakenly offended by an implicit bias of your own where no offense was actually meant.

I call attention to your statement: “MAGA is an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups.” When I see the words, “undeniable symbol of white supremacy,” I am immediately reminded of Nazi Germany’s use of the swastika, under which six million Jews had to be exterminated to qualify it as a symbol of hatred. Yet, you cite no historical context or fact to justify your use of MAGA in the same way.

I would also like to address your statement: “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.”

Here again, without any factual basis, you portend to know what is in the hearts and minds of all MAGA supporters. This is pure conjecture on your part, and I might add, unbecoming, of one who, as a law professor of all things, should know that arguments need to and should always be backed up by facts. And yet, you show no facts to substantiate any of your statements.

Perhaps our difference of opinion is rooted in your statement: “Scholars have argued that whites and people of color perceive racial discrimination through fundamentally different psychological frameworks. Moreover, people of color and whites are likely to differ substantially in how they perceive and define such discrimination. These studies show that many whites assume people are colorblind and expect evidence of racial discrimination to be explicit; many blacks perceive racial bias to be widespread and implicit.” I would agree that in some cases whites are resistant to seeing racism, which is obvious to nonwhites, but I would also postulate that in some cases nonwhites are overly anxious to find racism where none exists. The recent example of the Betsy Ross flag comes to mind here, and I would argue that other than the media’s and the left’s demonization of MAGA to create and advance divisiveness in our country for political gain, no real racism is implied by it.

With your indulgence, lastly, for what it is worth, the subject of the phrase, “Make America Great Again,” is America, and I believe that America includes all of us, whites and nonwhites alike, and it is when all of us are at our best—united, not divided—that America is also at its best. In conclusion, I would urge you in the future to use your education and the God-given high level of intelligence that you clearly possess to encourage unity instead of fostering divisiveness over the perceived racism of a phrase where none is intended other than by its misuse or merely for being adopted by a political party, with which I assume you disagree.” —Dr. Lewis Bauer

Dear Professor Omari,

First, I want to say how sorry I am that you had to endure what was clearly an attempt to bait you into some kind of “gotcha” moment, with the possibility that you would be seen as the perpetrator—and with the risk of losing your position and having it affect your tenure and standing in the legal community and as a professor.

I am also sorry that none of the other students spoke up to share the burden of what was taking place. I would like to say that if that had happened here in California, people would have spoken up … but these days, I am less sure about that.

I am tempted to say that one of the reasons this feels so fraught is that we are taught in law school that “the marketplace of ideas” will sort it out … that all voices should be heard, and only the ones with the best ideas will be the last voices ringing in the marketplace. … but we are seeing today that that is not the case, over and over again, on a daily basis.

I would also venture to say that there is a fusion/confusion about what political speech really is. Is it really “political speech” to wear a hat telegraphing your nationalist and racist ideologies? Or is it just simple racism? I can only say that, to me, it feels clearly and vehemently racist.

I just wanted to say how much I admire how you handled that … and I would say that no matter how you had handled it … because as a white, cis-gendered female, I have no idea how it feels to have that kind of malevolence directed at me, and I have no idea how people who have that kind of experience don’t daily explode from hurt and rage … except that response is used against people of color, too.

Thank you for writing about your experience. I hope the next time someone walks into your class with anything other than the utmost respect, the other students step up for you in solidarity. That’s the kind of “political speech” I would hope we aspire to. —Kelly Davidian

Reading the black visiting law professor’s long explanation of feelings misses one important issue. He is interpreting another’s motives without further investigation.

As a legal academic he should know that the First Amendment allows freedom of speech, which includes speech that may be offensive to others without intention. A debate between the two might have been of more value than a diatribe about the student’s intentions.

Progressives live in a different reality assuming that those who hold different values are somehow completely disallowed from expressing their reality. —Richard Kates

I thank the author for the courage to write what he did. As an American who has faced similar classrooms without the same feelings, I question the lack of self-reflection of where the feelings came from. I would reject what I understood to be a taunt. If he let a student control his emotions like this, it gives the student power that is not healthy.

Could you have asked the student to express what the hat stood for in his/her mind ? It might have been a positive statement that changed your mind. You might have started wearing the same hat. Did it really matter that someone expressed a sign that they felt would hurt you? Some folks will always try to pull you down when they see your worth. —Henry Kerr

I have just read Professor Jeffrey Omari’s comments labeled as “Seeing Red.” The comments are thoughtful and well expressed, and I might add raise many more topics of conversation than just the MAGA hat issue.

First, I am an 82-year-old white sole practitioner in a small town in northwest Illinois and hence generations apart from the traditional law student. I can’t imagine allowing hats to be worn in the classroom, much less MAGA hats. It is immature and unprofessional and disrespectful.

I am very much inclined to agree with and applaud the professor’s response (or lack thereof) by ignoring the student’s provocation. Clowns like the student deserve to be ignored. At least by the professor. But not by the other students.

One or more of the other students should have told the offender to take his hat off and stow it out of sight or get out of the classroom. The offender’s behavior was intended to disrupt the class or at least to serve as a distraction, and it surely doesn’t promote the academic environment that the students are paying for. I like to think that I would have “cashiered” the lad, but then I am just an old marine. —Ronald F. Coplan

I read Jeffrey Omari’s “Seeing Red” article. He was clearly triggered and, I thought, projecting his own views on the student of what he thought a Donald Trump supporter was, because he never asked the student why he was wearing the MAGA hat. Was the student a racist? I don’t know; Omari never talked to him. Wearing a MAGA hat is not enough by itself to call someone a racist. Instead of being triggered, I think Omari should talk to the student to ask why he likes Donald Trump. He might be surprised. I voted for Donald Trump because he promised to lower taxes, improve the economy, improve our national defense and support Israel. The people I know who also voted for Trump did so for similar reasons.

As a professor, Omari holds a superior position to the student, a position of authority. He should be professional and not let his emotions get out of control. He should not allow his own political biases control his actions over a student, and he should especially be aware of his biases when it comes to grading and interacting with the student. He should also be aware that wearing an Obama hat can be just as triggering to someone as wearing a MAGA hat was to him.

I’m suggesting that we talk to each other to understand why others hold differing views. I do that with my liberal progressive friends. We don’t agree much or change minds, but we remain civil and are reminded that the other person is a human being and not a racist or a hateful liberal nutjob. We’re just friends with different points of view. —Marc Abramson

Dear ABA Journal,

After the 2016 election, I wore my campaign-trail-comfy MAGA hat on Telemundo that Wednesday evening, having a positive discussion about illegal immigration, refugee concerns and foreign aid with a Hispanic community organizer who had come out to D.C.’s Ben Franklin statue to protest. (Or at least I think I put it on to show we were getting along after we’d started a positive interaction from our different perspectives.) I wore a Trump-Pence sticker and a red, white and blue outfit to a concerned-citizens forum a mosque hosted where the movement’s message of passion, speaking truth to power, and inclusive problem-solving was well received. And again, I wore the MAGA hat to a university roundtable program about a “surge in hate crimes and hateful speech” in “Trump’s America” to explain that is not what I and all the other supporters I knew were about (and dialogued with the organizer to find out that they did not have any hateful incidents in mind, but had been concerned that it could happen).

So, maybe the student’s proud of our president for a strong economy, including the lowest African American unemployment on record, protecting us and freeing the Middle East and Africa from the horrors of ISIS, and standing up to corporate insiders for healthcare we can truly afford?

And (maybe he was) reaching out of the young professional liberal comfort zone (that had largely been a disaster for our cities) to invite the class—and professor—to help Keep America Great?

Why not ask him informally sometime? Could be a learning experience all around! —Anand Desai

I would think that a baseball cap would be as inappropriate in the classroom as in court. Judges have no problems pointing that out to those in the courtroom, neither should teachers—but both should do so uniformly.

I don’t doubt the writer has experienced race-baiting before and sadly will again—I have to say, that sometimes refusing to take the bait is often the best path. As bitter a pill is it to swallow—failing to give them the bully pulpit and excuse to complain is far better than engaging them, and giving them a voice.

Next time a judge tells me I should smile more, I will think of Mr. Omari—perhaps I will even smile. Then again, I will probably suggest that the judge should smile more too (in lieu of commenting on his hat).

I’m not so sure that either of them appreciate the irony, but I would like to think that anyone else in earshot might. —Teresa Bliley

I am surprised and disappointed that it was not considered or suggested that professor Omari engage the student outside of class. Such inquires as “Did you consider? …”, “Were your intentions? …” and the like could have opened an educational moment for both parties—and if well-handled, with little risk.

I agree with >90% of what professor Omari wrote and have great sympathy for anyone who feels so alone and outnumbered. I have felt that way from time to time for different reasons, but never so deeply or persistently.

However (that word had to be coming, right?), I respectfully disagree with the premise of his piece. I do not doubt the sincerity of his feelings about the MAGA hat, but I cannot accept the assumption of the unanimity of racial views that he attributes to all such wearers. I also note that I have seen many African Americans and other people of color wearing that hat themselves.

There are many reasons to support the president (incidentally, few of which I share), and I agree that too many of them involve racial bias, white supremacy and the like. Perhaps wearers should be more sensitive to the adverse effect of the hat on many people of color. But of the few MAGA-hatters that I know, fewer than half are racist. I am admittedly a white New York suburban resident, but I’m not the one who raised the issue of unanimity—which is pretty easy to refute. (I also note that the leader of the “Proud Boys” lives in my community. No community is immune.)

It is a reach to assume that the only alternative readings of the hat were: (1) a hateful message was intended; or (2) a lack of decorum plus obliviousness to the reaction of a black professor were at work.

It is also quite possible that, in the white-dominant environment described, the student knows little of the sensitivities of people of color to such issues. Maybe he thought that he might just be “yanking the chain” of a professed progressive? And there are other possibilities. —Joel Negrin

Dear Mr. Omari,

Thanks for your thoughtful insights regarding the MAGA hat in your classroom. You ended your article by saying “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.” I believe this is a certainty that liberal academia has latched onto MAGA and not the true sense of its meaning. It was a simple, and clever, campaign slogan that pointed to diminished American stature in the world and the decline of jobs. It is a simple economic plea.

That said, symbols and meanings are not static, and MAGA has obviously taken on new meanings. Perception has become reality.

I applaud you for how you diffused the situation in your classroom. Humor and the written word are effective ways to respond. —John Sage

Related coverage:

Law professor says wearing a MAGA hat in the classroom is ‘white supremacy’

Law Professor: MAGA Hat “Undeniable Symbol Of White Supremacy”

Living With MAGA Hats In The Law School Classroom

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