In a recent commentary piece, a law professor at Gonzaga University recounted how he felt, as the lone African American in his classroom, when a student showed up one day wearing the ubiquitous apparel of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Jeffrey Omari, who is teaching and conducting research at Gonzaga as part of a two-year fellowship, wrote in a column for the American Bar Association Journal that his “blood boiled” when he spotted the male student donning a bright-red MAGA cap, which he interpreted as a racist provocation. The column was headlined “Seeing red: A professor coexists with ‘MAGA’ in the classroom.”
“From my (progressive) perspective as a black man living in the increasingly polarized political climate that is America, MAGA is an undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups,” Omari wrote. “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.”
The column was published July 3 but captured attention this week when it was criticized by several bloggers, including Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
“The mere fact that some kid wears a MAGA hat does not mean that he is a racist or that he is trying to racially intimidate an African American professor,” Turley wrote. “This is part of the trend that we have discussed on campuses where speech is being curtailed as racist or microaggressive based on how it is perceived by others as opposed to how it is intended. In this case, the hat has different meaning to different people.”
For some, however, Omari’s argument resonated. In the Spokane forum on the website Reddit, one user commented: “Saying MAGA hats are about security and economic strength etc. instead of xenophobia and racism is the modern-day equivalent of saying the American Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery.”
The dean of Gonzaga’s School of Law, Jacob Rooksby, said in a statement Wednesday: “The School of Law diligently works to provide a respectful and inclusive environment that welcomes all students, faculty and staff. We respect the points of view of all members of our community. This situation presents an opportunity for our community to listen to and learn from each other.”
A spokesman for the law school said he didn’t know if any faculty member raised concerns about the MAGA hat directly with the student, who is not named in Omari’s column.
Omari did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday. In his column, he wrote that the student showed up to class wearing a MAGA hat, for the first time, three weeks before the end of the academic year. Omari added that he “knew this student’s political leanings from our various class discussions throughout the course of the semester.”
Arguing that MAGA hats are racist, Omari cited “recent statements by MAGA-supporting politicians such as Roy Moore.” Omari did not give a specific example, but Moore, who had Trump’s support while running for an Alabama Senate seat in 2017, has been criticized for racist and xenophobic remarks in the past. Moore has asserted Muslims should not serve in Congress and promoted the false “birther” theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump, too, has been criticized as a bigot, including when he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” when he used an expletive to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, and when he suggested a majority of Mexican immigrants are criminals, rapists and drug dealers.
“Thus,” Omari wrote, “in that moment, I was unsure whether the student was directing a hateful message toward me or if he merely lacked decorum and was oblivious to how his hat might be interpreted by his black law professor. I presumed it was the former. As the student sat there directly in front of me, his shiny red MAGA hat was like a siren spewing derogatory racial obscenities at me for the duration of the one hour and fifteen-minute class.”
Omari said he respects students’ right to express their political beliefs but felt the MAGA hat crossed a line. He referred to studies which “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.”
“With this scholarship in mind, I understood why no one else in this particular class – in which whites outnumbered students of color 20 to three (with me, the instructor, being the lone African American) – seemed as vexed as I was,” he wrote.
“As my blood boiled inwardly, outwardly I remained calm,” he wrote. “In an effort to assuage the perceived tension, I jokingly told the student, ‘I like your hat,’ when he raised his hand to participate in class discussion. Without missing a beat, the student mockingly grinned from ear to ear and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Omari wrote that he was reluctant to raise the issue in the classroom because he didn’t feel his concerns would be taken seriously. He said he grappled with how to address the matter and consulted other faculty members afterward.
“I understood that my lack of tenure, precarious status as a (visiting assistant professor) and the hue of my skin meant that I would be fighting an uphill battle should I have asked the student to remove his distracting red hat during class,” Omari wrote. “Surely, there must be protocol when African American professors – whose presence is scarce in most law schools – find their authority defiantly undermined by an insensitive student.”
Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said Omari’s narrative captures “the visceral experience that black Americans and Americans of color feel in those spaces” that are predominantly white.
Robinson also agreed MAGA hats are racist.
“I don’t think there’s any kind of hiding that one,” he said.
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