Monday, October 18, 2021

L'Affaire Trap House at Yale Law School

Andrew Koppelman


The movement for diversity and inclusion has improved people’s lives in many tangible ways. A few days ago at Northwestern Law School, where I’m a professor, I went into the men’s restroom and saw that the school had provided tampons and sanitary pads on a shelf there. It made me happy. There are people here who menstruate and identify as male. Their needs matter, and the school now recognizes that. 

But in other respects, the diversity and inclusion movement is becoming the enemy of diversity and inclusion, imposing a cookie-cutter orthodoxy and trying to turn thinking human beings into marionettes. An already-notorious recent episode at Yale Law School (disclosure: I’m an alumnus) highlights the problem. It offers lessons in how to, and how not to, manage issues of inclusion. 

Trent Colbert, a Yale Law student who belongs to the Native American Law Students Association (he’s part Cherokee) and the conservative Federalist Society, had invited classmates to an event cohosted by both groups. "We will be christening our very own (soon to be) world-renowned NALSA Trap House … by throwing a Constitution Day Bash in collaboration with FedSoc," he wrote. The invitation promised “Popeye’s chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie etc.)” and hard and soft drinks. 

It is unsurprising that Colbert did not know all the connotations of “trap house.” The term, which originally referred to crack houses in poor neighborhoods, has, according to Urban Dictionary, “since been abused by high school students who like to pretend they're cool by drinking their mom's beer together and saying they're part of a ‘traphouse’."  It is one of a huge range of slang terms from marginalized urban culture that has entered the mainstream, where many people acquire it ignorant of its etymology.   

The invitation was almost instantly screenshotted and shared to an online forum for law students. The president of the Black Law Students Association reportedly wrote in the forum, "I guess celebrating whiteness wasn’t enough. Y’all had to upgrade to cosplay/black face." She also objected to the mixer’s affiliation with the Federalist Society, which she said "has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric." The school’s Office of Student Affairs received nine discrimination and harassment complaints. 

The office quickly summoned Colbert: “We’d like to meet with you to discuss a deeply concerning and problematic incident that was reported to us.”  He was wary when he met with Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity director Yaseen Eldik, anticipating that some kind of punishment might be imposed upon him. So he recorded it. That recording, as Ruth Marcus writes in the Washington Post, “offers an unsettling insight into the hair-trigger and reflexively liberal mind-set of the educational diversity complex.” But more than that, it is a lesson in how to do an important job badly.  

In the first place, a coercive summons (which this obviously was) was inappropriate. Colbert’s email could not plausibly have been construed as discrimination or harassment, both of which require identifiable victims. Yale might have invited him to a meeting, but should have made clear at the outset that no sanctions were contemplated and that it was his choice whether to come at all.

The first few minutes aren’t all that bad. They sound like responsible administrators somewhat clumsily attempting to deescalate a situation. Eldik explains to Colbert how the message was received by some other students: “In one paradigm you would think about the word ‘trap’ by way of the lens of a crack den or crack home. The racial association with that connotation would be bound up in some of the drug use that has been historically associated with poor black communities in this country.” That was useful information. Colbert told me that before this episode, he had thought it simply meant a “party house.”  As Above the Law’s David Lat observes, that “an erudite, historically informed analysis arguing for why ‘trap house’ should be considered offensive” might be informative, but the fact that “a mini-dissertation” was necessary ought to tell us something about whether it was appropriate or not to take offense. 

Some of Eldik’s claims were farfetched.  The "triggering associations," he told Colbert, were "compounded by the fried chicken reference," which "is often used to undermine arguments that structural and systemic racism has contributed to racial health disparities in the U.S." It is hard to imagine that anyone except Eldik made that connection. As it happens, there is a Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant near the law school. It can’t be racist to eat its food. 

Then came this disastrous blunder: "The email’s association with FedSoc was very triggering for students who already feel like FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities. That of course obviously includes the LGBTQIA community and black communities and immigrant communities." (The Federalist Society is one of America’s most influential legal groups, whose members include six Supreme Court justices.)

 This may have truthfully reported how some students feel. But Eldik should have distanced the law school from those feelings.  

The Washington Free Beacon, which first reported the story, claims that Yale’s leaders “now regard membership in mainstream conservative circles as a legitimate object of offense — and as potential grounds for discipline.” That’s an overreading – at this point in the conversation, there had been no mention of discipline – but Yale’s apparently uncritical endorsement of the complainants’ feelings  was a mistake. The cause of diversity is not promoted when stupid stereotypes about black people are replaced with stupid stereotypes about the Federalist Society. 

Five minutes into the meeting, Colbert sounds relieved that no consequences have been threatened. He tells Eldik and Cosgrove that he knew that people had taken offense at his email, but that no one had explained to him what the problem was. “I think I’ll just not use that word anymore,” he says. “I’ve used it openly for months and no one’s said a thing, but I think it would have been better if someone had said something.” 

He told me later that he was concealing his nervousness.  “It felt strange and uncomfortable.  I was on edge because I wasn’t sure what was going on. I had the impression that these people weren’t trustworthy.”  Yale Law Professor Monica Bell has defended Eldik’s good faith, and I have no reason to doubt it. But the coercive character of the conversation destroyed the possibility of trust. Colbert had every reason to worry that he was in danger.

I recount the rest of the story at the Chronicle of Higher Education, here.

Note that, as is usual with articles written for professional news sources, I was not consulted about the title of my piece and only learned of it after the piece was published.

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