Begging The Question

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I Think I've Been Accused of Racism
In this post a few days ago I related an encounter I witnessed on the elevator at work. It's short; click or scroll down to read it. Briefly, a white woman reacted to a black man in a way that made me think she was afraid of him, and I was taken aback by her attitude. Yesterday, I got an email about the post with the subject line "stereotyping." I'll reproduce it here in full, verbatim, and then analyze it a bit closer:
maybe you should look at your own language .. what do you mean to say when you say "little OLD middle-aged WHITE lady" -- is OLD something BAD. is middle-aged bad? also you are very out of touch if you do not realize that the word "lady" is offensive if not showing plain ignorance. do you consider yourself great because you aren't scared of black people? why should anybody be scared of black people? why did you comment so blatantly on the man's corn rows. obviously you are not used to them and used them to stereotype something. why do you want to be hurtful.
Let's start with "[W]hat do you mean to say when you say 'little OLD middle-aged WHITE lady' -- is OLD something BAD[?]" I'll admit this is a case where a colloquialism of mine might have caused confusion. I say "little old" (pronounced like "little ol'") a lot, even when the thing I'm referring to isn't old. But even assuming I was describing the woman as both old and middle-aged, I don't think I was saying old = bad. That would have been stereotyping. I talked about one specific woman, but my emailer assumed, without reason, that I was making a generalized statement.

Next, my emailer asserts, "[A]lso you are very out of touch if you do not realize that the word 'lady' is offensive if not showing plain ignorance." I don't walk around blurting, "Hey lady!" to all the women I see, but I have to say it's a new one on me to learn that the word is per se offensive. Tell that to every speaker, including women, who starts a speech with "Ladies and gentlemen," or the members of Congress who refer to their female colleagues as "gentleladies." I do think "lady" is offensive if it's used as a derogatory qualifier (as in "She's a lady lawyer"), but I fail to see how it could be offensive merely to use the word "lady." If I have missed this month's PC update, please let me know.

Next, my emailer asks, "[D]o you consider yourself great because you aren't scared of black people? [W]hy should anybody be scared of black people?" This is where it becomes clear that my emailer completely missed the point of my post. I never said I was anything special, and I thought I made it clear that I was disapproving of the woman's reaction. I never gave any hint that I thought the guy was scary in any way, so of course I found it odd that she was scared of him. But note that my emailer is the one who is making generalizations by stereotyping all "black people."

Next, my emailer asks, "[W]hy did you comment so blatantly on the man's corn rows[?] [O]bviously you are not used to them and used them to stereotype something." First, my emailer has absolutely no basis to assert that I'm not used to corn rows. Second, I'm at least familiar enough with them to know what they are. Third, my emailer isn't clear what he or she thinks I was stereotyping by mentioning corn rows. I also mentioned he was wearing a workman's coverall -- did I thereby stereotype people who wear those? I was simply describing the man's appearance as a way of contrasting the woman's. Again, she was the one who seemed to judge the guy based on his looks. How could I relate that without telling readers what the man looked like?

Finally, my emailer sums up with, "[W]hy do you want to be hurtful[?]" At the risk of over-stating the obvious, I don't want to be hurtful, and that's why I mentioned this incident -- to show how pervasive and ridiculous this kind of racism is. I wasn't stereotyping. I didn't say something like "older white women are scared of younger black men." I talked about one specific person's reaction to another specific person, which was probably based on her own stereotypes. I fail to see how anything I said was "hurtful," unless it's automatically hurtful to talk about someone else's hurtful comments.

If I am accused of stereotyping for pointing out when someone else stereotypes, well, we're never going to make any progress. I stand by the subject line of this post because "racism" is generally defined as making stereotyped general judgments based solely on race, and that's what the emailer accused me of doing. I don't appreciate such unfounded accusations, and so I responded here. Other readers can look at my posts and decide for themselves if my emailer has a point. Clearly, I think my emailer has missed the point.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Police Academy 8: Shaq on Patrol
NBA star Shaquille O'Neal was sworn in this week as a reserve officer with the Miami Beach police department. Officer O'Neal will be able to carry a gun and arrest people. I know this sounds like the premise of a sitcom (or a terrible movie), but apparently he's really into being a cop.

This reminds me of Elvis Presley and his well-publicized cop fetish. Elvis collected police badges from cities all over the country. He famously met Richard Nixon to get a DEA badge (and narc on the Beatles). Elvis would even use a blue light and pull over unsuspecting motorists. I'm not sure what would be weirder -- getting pulled over in Miami Beach by Shaquille O'Neal or getting pulled over on some random Tennessee highway by Elvis freaking Presley.

I don't begrudge O'Neal his desire to make the world a better place. And, in contrast to "honorary" Officer Presley, O'Neal has done the requisite training to be a real reserve policeman. So maybe he's going to look into this. I really don't envy the defense attorney who has to cross-examine Shaq. And no way would I file a 1983 suit against him!

Tulane Tries to Survive
The Post reports on Tulane University's plan to stay afloat post-Katrina. It's a depressing story. The school plans to cut $55 million from its budget by laying off 230 faculty, dropping several sports, and dropping several academic programs like engineering. The article notes that Tulane is facing a really big deficit thanks to damage and cleanup. But students are going to be part of that cleanup, thanks to the school's new public service requirement. It sounds like, along with a streamlining, Tulane is trying to make New Orleans's survival and its own part of the same mission. It's worth pointing out that Tulane is New Orleans's biggest employer (says the article, although I wonder if that means just private employers), so Tulane's success and the city's are truly intertwined.

Tulane's fortunes are a big reason I understood when Tulane officials denied students' requests to remain for the spring semester at schools that had taken them in during the fall. The students, understandably, had settled in, signed leases, moved families, etc., and wanted to stay. They didn't know what Tulane would be able to offer even if they were to return for the spring. But the school needed tuition dollars (vitally), and also needed bodies -- people returning to New Orleans to make an effort to rebuild. It's a tough situation all the way around, but I believe the school when it said that it wouldn't have survived if students didn't come back this spring.

I don't know what the future holds for New Orleans. It may end up being this century's Galveston. That city was bigger than Houston in 1900, when a devastating hurricane hit. Now, although Galveston seems like a perfectly nice city, it's no Houston. New Orleans may never be more than a quaint little city on the water like Charleston or Savannah, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. It may yet come all the way back to its former state. Either way, the city needs Tulane. It's unfortunate that Tulane has to cut so much to survive, but let's hope it works.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What Decade Did I Wake Up In?
Two odd things happened to me today that would have seemed much less out of place in another generation, I think.

First, I was getting on the elevator this morning. There was a little old middle-aged white woman waiting as well. Right before the elevator came, a tall young black man with cornrows, wearing a workman's coverall, strode up. He punched the button for the second floor, she for the tenth or so, me for the fifteenth. When he got off, she looked at me with a nervous chuckle and said something like, "Wow, he sure looked kind of rough!" I just gave a noncomittal "hmm." I know I should have gone off and conviced her to be scared of white people, too. But I was too stunned to really say anything, and it was early in the morning, and the ride was short. Still, weird.

Then, tonight, I was at the drugstore, and a guy was in line ahead of me. Judging from his accent, he was from a foreign country. He was actually getting a rain check for something in the store's Sunday circular! Who does that anymore?! The clerk had to blow the dust off the rain check receipt book. What I don't understand is why anyone would go to the trouble of doing this. There's about a million drugstores in the metro area. And if this particular chain had such a great price in the circular, there are plenty of other branches around. (To be fair, maybe he had already been to all of them.) I suppose there might be a reason to shop only at this store, but I can't imagine it. Anyway, rain checks strike me as a bit outdated in these days of 24-hour drugstores and internet shopping. I wonder if the guy came from a country where that kind of shopping disappointment is common.

Maybe tomorrow I'll wake up in the modern age.

Are Jell-O Shots a Drink or Dessert?
I need to take a dish to a pot-luck party soon. I don't have any restrictions like hors d'oeuvres or main dishes or desserts.

Any suggestions?

Note: I need a simple recipe. The fewer ingredients and the easier to make, the better. Assume zero knowledge of cooking terms and an unfamiliarity with most foods and appliances. I'm not saying I actually have zero knowledge, but we'll all be better off if you work under that assumption. I'm not this guy, after all. Of course, I can look up the cooking terms, but I'd prefer not to have to buy any new fancy equipment. Oh, and I don't feel qualified to take Frito Pie. I was going to say that the person who provides the recipe I choose will get an invite to the party, but I figured (a) that would actually be a disincentive for most people, and (b) if I could talk you into going, I'd just get you to make the dish in the first place.

Thanks very much!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Drink by Drink, Taking the Bar Exam
I knew a guy in high school who bombed the SAT. He was a smart fellow, had good grades, ended up going to a good college, all that. But when he got his SAT score back, the verbal score was abysmal. It turned out that he thought the one section called for him to pick the synonym instead of the antonym. The lesson is that a little test prep goes a long way.

Apparently that lesson isn't universal. I first saw via How Appealing that former Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan apparently failed the California bar exam this summer. For a nice example of shadenfreude, see this post from Norm at Crime & Federalism (which I thought was a bit mean, and similar comments led to this follow-up post).

What conclusions can we draw from Dean Sullivan's misfortune? First, it must mean that Amber, who passed the California bar exam, must be smarter than Sullivan and qualified to be dean of a top-ten law school. Congratulations, Amber.

Norm says that the bar exam "is the one time in a lawyer's life in which he or she is forced to take a more or less comprehensive look at the law's structure and function as applied to the more ordinary problems of daily living for which people hire lawyers." Well, my bar prep experience was "comprehensive" in the sense that I studied a lot of subjects, most of which I will never, ever practice, and memorized the black-letter law without any nuance. My test prep courses specifically told us to avoid nuance.

I'll never be convinced that the bar exam is the best way to measure competence. That's especially true when you can take it when you're 25 and practice till you're 75, only having to sleep through some CLE's to stay licensed. If the bar exam is such a wonderful thing, why not make all lawyers take it all over again, say every ten years?

The fact is that most lawyers today don't have a "comprehensive" practice. In one of his more accurate statements, former Chief Justice Warren Burger once said that his clerks were bright enough that they could argue a case before the Supreme Court, but he wouldn't trust any of them to fix a traffic ticket. If someone asked me to file a lawsuit, I'd be committing malpractice to even try.

Similarly, Kathleen Sullivan's practice isn't going to require an intimate knowledge of, say, California's law on pretermitted heirs, but that's the kind of thing the bar exam asks for. I'm not saying we shouldn't have any general minimum competence testing, but couldn't law schools provide that? Why accredit law schools if we don't think law school graduates are qualified to practice?

Anyway, I don't have some perfect solution, but I guess I put less faith in the bar exam than Norm does, especially given how many totally incompetent attorneys passed the bar. And as for Norm's suggestion that Sullivan's plight might disqualify her as a potential Supreme Court nominee, well, if the Republicans can nominate (and get confirmed) lawyers who were suspended from the practice of law for non-payment of bar dues, I think Sullivan will be ok. Plus, it will give her a dose of humility, which we all like to see.

Good luck to Dean Sullivan in February!

(The title of this post comes from the wonderful drinking song "Bar Exam" by The Derailers.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

On Blogging, On Writing
There's an interesting set of posts up at Begging to Differ, the second-best blog with the word "begging" in the title. In order: first, second, third. The posts offer some insight into the general blog malaise that's apparently contagious.

My problem (this time) is less about time to blog than it is something to blog about. As Steve mentioned in the first post, it's hard to blog well about politics, and as Hei Lun mentioned in the second post, most of the current political topics are boring and/or depressing. Because of my job, I'm reluctant to post about some topics, including a lot of legal topics. And, I don't want BTQ to become just a diary all about my personal life; I do want some readers, after all.

Scheherazade has a nice post up about writing, and why she writes. It reminded me of an essay in the "Oxford American" a few issues back. The author (I apologize for not remembering her name) discusses the questions she always gets at book fairs and readings of her work: "How do you write?" The questioners usually say they want to be writers, and want to know the secret: typewriter or longhand? morning or night? tea or coffee? What they think is that if they put themselves in the published author's shoes, the words will come. It's as if the hard part is deciding between Word and WordPerfect.

For the author of the "OA" essay, and I think for Sherry as well, writing isn't about how they do it; it's that they have to do it. It's something they couldn't turn off if they wanted. Sherry, like Longfellow before her, is supporting herself as a teacher while she writes. I'm sure that's better than working at the Custom House.

I'm not sure I would say that writing is a complusion for me, and the mere equivocation in that statement probably means it isn't. In one respect, I'm lucky, because I write non-stop for my day job, and I really like the medium. I'd prefer an academic position, but it's not as bad as it could be. So I get most of my writing fix during the day. I find myself composing a lot, thinking in my head about what I'd like to write. But my fingers don't itch to put it to paper. I've never kept a diary or journal, and I don't have some hidden personal blog no one knows about. (To clarify, I have a couple of other domains, but I don't post there; I'm just place-holding.) Other than work product and emails, what you see here is pretty much my total writing output.

So maybe I'm not a "writer" in the sense that I must write. But before I started blogging, I wrote lengthy emails to my friends that look like proto-blog-posts. And I would sure hate to give up this outlet. I enjoy writing here for its own sake, regardless of readership -- although the feedback is always nice. There are times that blogging feels like a chore, but more often I really enjoy doing it.

Lately, I wish I had been doing more of it. I have annoyed all my friends seeking something to blog about. It reminds me of how Stephen King answers his most frequently asked questions, where he gets his ideas. In some of his work, King has described his mind as a sieve, and horror is what sticks when everything else falls out. I think my sieve has sprung a leak. Nothing's sticking.

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    The views presented here are personal and in no way reflect the view of my employer. In addition, while legal issues are discussed here from time to time, what you read at BTQ is not legal advice. I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer. If you need legal advice, then go see another lawyer.

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