Thursday, May 06, 2010

Bleed American

Some California high schoolers decided to wear American flags all over their body during Cinco de Mayo. Eugene Volokh defends them from charges of discourteousness:
Even if the students wore American flag garb only on Cinco de Mayo, I take it that the message was “you want to stress your Mexican heritage, and we want to stress our American heritage” or at most “we don’t entirely approve of your stressing your ethnic heritage, since we should all think of ourselves as Americans.” This might convey some disagreement, but it hardly strikes me as discourteous; and to the extent that it’s a “rebuke,” it’s the sort of message that people are entitled — not just as a matter of law, but also of good manners — to send. Courtesy doesn’t require absence of disagreement. It requires that the disagreement not be framed in a rude way, and I don’t think there’s anything rude in the messages that I infer the clothes were trying to send.

I think Volokh is missing the most obvious potential message here, though, and it's one that is clearly discourteous: That unlike the Cinco de Mayo celebrators, the wearers here are real Americans. Volokh's claim that the message is that we should all view ourselves as Americans is, under this view, precisely the opposite message. The students may have been intending to send (or the recipients may have received, regardless of intent) the message that "people with your cultural heritage and background are something alien and external to 'American', which is what we represent."

Or maybe not. But it's a very plausible reading of the t-shirts, and one Volokh doesn't address. And needless to say, that message would be quite morally pernicious.


Superdestroyer said...

I was hoping to see your defense of the black only field trip in Ann Arbor Michigan but a condemnation of the free speech exercised by students in California is almost as good.

Is there any middle class white conservative that you do not call a racist or is that the natural reflex of someone who will eventually be in charge of enforcing non-discrimination laws someday? I love the logic that "Bong Hits for Jesus" is OK but a bandana with an American Flag is wrong.

N. Friedman said...

Many, many moons ago, when I was in college, a group of students at my school decided to cover their faces with pillow cases and their bodies in a sheet, all making them look a whole lot like members of the KKK.

This garb, quite naturally, upset many on campus including, most particularly, African Americans. Even then, the offenders were, so far as I ever learned, not racist but the college suspended them for offending people. One has to be pretty dumb, after all, not to realize that KKK outfits are offensive and especially so to African Americans. So, the tranquility of the school was at issue and the school acted to address a wrong.

By contrast, the wearing of an American bandana or the like, whether or not some might be offended, is not legitimately an offensive form of garb. While we should certainly bend over backwards to be welcoming to newcomers, newcomers also need to bend over backwards to accept the symbols of their new home. Cinco de Mayo celebrates an event in the history of Mexico. While anyone is free to enjoy that holiday, newcomers to the US have to tolerate US symbols even on Cinco de Mayo. So, as I see it, the offense given is one that those who celebrate Cinco de Mayo need to tolerate.

Perhaps, there is more to the story than was appears. Perhaps, there is a history of fighting in the specific school or some reason to believe that such outfits might cause people to fight. Absent that, I think the school is way out of line. And, I think your view of the matter is pretty bizarre. Being discourteous is a basic right. Celebrating US symbols, even at the expense of foreign symbols, is a basic right.

The opposite view is the view of the Commissar.

Rebecca said...

I'm sure they do the same on Saint Patrick's Day.

N. Friedman said...


And your point is? By my recollection, there are American flags on St. Patrick's Day. And, no one would complain if there were.

David Schraub said...

Which illuminates the critical issue -- the motives behind the speech act. Was it to signal, as I think possible (though not definite), that the Hispanic students aren't real Americans -- delineating a distinction between "true" Americans and the Latino interlopers? Or was it something else -- signaling unity between Cinco de Mayo and Americanness? The motive and the message are key here.

The Supreme Court has noted that a state action that otherwise would be constitutional can still be struck down if it was sparked by impermissible motives. City of Richmond v. United States, 422 U.S. 358, 378–79 (1975). This is because, as Elizabeth Anderson and Richard Pildes argue, people can experience harm when decisions are taken in accordance with principles expressing inappropriate attitudes towards them, even where the actual act might otherwise be innocuous. Elizabeth Anderson & Richard Pildes, Expressive Theories of Law: A General Restatement, 148 U. PA. L. REV. 1503, 1527–28 (2000).

The Asian of Reason said...

People who illegally immigrate to the US and establish themselves are not real Americans. Do you dispute this fact? Or does the "real American" category now include everyone who lives here, legally or illegally?

Rebecca said...

Because all people of Mexican descent in the United States are illegal immigrants, of course. It's not like California used to belong to Mexico or anything.