Earlier this summer, a black man who worked in the dining hall at Yale University’s Calhoun residential college shattered one of the building’s stained glass windows, a portrait of two slaves. Corey Menafee, who’d worked at the school for nine years, resigned after the act, for which he was charged with criminal mischief and misdemeanor reckless endangerment. (The charges were later dropped.) The incident put a human face on ongoing concerns about the impact of racist signage and imagery at universities. “When I walked into this job, I wasn’t aware of none of that,” Menafee said of the existence of the window. “It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.”
“My client liked his job and his colleagues,” Menafee’s lawyer added. “He just wants to work in an environment that leaves him free to focus on his work instead of being exposed to distressing images.” Yale, citing the “unique circumstances” of Menafee’s resignation, offered to allow Menafee to return to work in a “different setting” after a five-week unpaid suspension, conditions he accepted. The school will be soliciting input from students on the best replacement for the window, and will commission an artist to redesign it. When classes begin next week, and moving forward, the offending image will no longer occupy students’ shared living and work space, circumstances Menafee was never given the chance to enjoy himself.
It’s hard not to empathize with Menafee’s frustration on a human level, but the undue burden placed upon a black employee—or black students—forced to constantly confront a glorification of plantation culture is not merely a question of ethics, but of law. As such, there may be legal action Menafee or residents of Calhoun College could have taken to try to force the university’s hand in removing the racist imagery. If students who have felt that their learning environment constitutes a hostile one start to take this approach, it could be a game-changer for civil rights law, freeing would-be protesting students up to spend their college years focusing on their personal enlightenment, rather than that of their administrations.
The legal avenue potentially available to these students begins with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of that act banned racial discrimination by employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, tasked with enforcing and investigating Title VII violations, has held that sufficiently severe and pervasive harassment constitutes discrimination in the form of a hostile work environment.
The EEOC has interpreted Title VII broadly, and a recent ruling points the way forward in future campus battles over hostile environments. In June, the commission considered the case of Shelton D. v. Brennan, evaluating a black employee’s complaint about his coworker’s cap, which bore an insignia of the Gadsden flag. (The flag depicts a coiled rattlesnake with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”) The commission found that, despite the flag’s nonracist origins, its appropriation by white supremacist groups in recent years lent the symbol sufficient ambiguity as to warrant an investigation into the “specific context of the flag’s display” to “illuminate [its] meaning … in order to determine whether an actionable claim of harassment exists.” The guiding principle is that workplaces, as gateways to economic freedom, have particular obligations to foster inclusive and tolerant environments.
The Yale case occurred in the midst of a national debate, often scoffingly dismissed as a symptom of P.C. culture, about whether universities, which also serve as gateways to class advancement, have similar obligations to their students. As a new school year begins, these debates are likely to flair up anew. At times, universities have been receptive and responsive to complaints. After the student government voted to remove a large statue of Jefferson Davis from the University of Texas, the administration agreed. Vanderbilt University recently announced that it would remove the inscription “Confederate Memorial Hall” from a dorm already referred to as “Memorial Hall” in official school publications. After the events of this summer, a Yale commission recommended that other windows in Calhoun College depicting scenes from Calhoun’s life be replaced as well.
In other cases, administrations have been less accommodating. Yale is taking down its windows, but it also decided against renaming Calhoun College, the name of which lionizes the white supremacist statesman, despite support for a measure to change the name among black students. Yale President Peter Salovey acknowledged the position that “the name constitutes present honor paid to an egregious defender of slavery, and it is an offensive and oppressive reminder of racial subordination that should be removed.” But his response to this specific concern was to commission a history project and art competition, rather than actually removing that “offensive and oppressive reminder.”
In a similar case, Princeton University recently announced that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs would also retain its name despite the former president’s championing of white supremacy, which included a re-segregation of the federal government. At Mississippi State University, students protested the flying of the Mississippi state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag saltire. University President Mark Keenum, who is in favor of changing the flag of Mississippi, insisted that taking the flag down on campus would be a mere “symbolic gesture.”
Judicial interpretations of the Civil Rights Act suggest that these students now have legal recourse in the aftermath of June’s Gadsden flag ruling. Title VI of the act applies similar standards to educational institutions that receive federal funding as Title VII does to places of employment. The Office of Civil Rights recognizes “racially hostile environments” in such institutions as an analog to “hostile work environments.” In 1993, a federal court determined that a series of non-discrimination statutes, including Titles VI and VII, all serve similar goals, and that case history regarding one could thus be used to interpret the others.
So, relying upon the results of Shelton D. v. Brennan, potential legal action against university inertia might now be the best way for students to engage with unresponsive administrations. In many of these cases, the issues are even more cut and dry than the Gadsden flag case.
The main complicating factor of Shelton D. v. Brennan is whether, as some legal scholars have argued, demanding an employee remove his or her cap constitutes a free speech violation. (Any ultimate decision could potentially be appealed on these grounds, but it isn’t part of the stated framework the EEOC will be using to further evaluate this case.) However, the cases at Yale, Princeton, and MSU do not involve policing employee behavior. Rather, they concern explicit stances that universities themselves have taken in their continued celebration of racist figures or exhibition of racist symbols, often by actively choosing to uphold the status quo. The context of such displays is thus far more questionable than the relevant display in Shelton. Their severity and pervasiveness are undeniably greater; in some instances, they are literally carved in stone.
Furthermore, the Gadsden flag is a symbol whose meaning has changed over time via modern associations. In contrast, the Confederate battle flag has always borne an association with white supremacy, and its inclusion in the Mississippi state flag is inextricably linked with racist ideology. Calhoun’s rise to political power is inseparable from his own racist views. The very fact that Wilson had to re-segregate the federal government indicates that his governing policies were decidedly regressive. These weren’t great men who failed to live up to the standards of our time; they were men who took up the fight against moral progress in their own time. Salovey has argued that Calhoun’s hateful views are a feature, not a bug, of the hall that bears his name—that the discomfort felt by minority residents of Calhoun College allows them to honestly grapple with America’s fraught racial history, including the sins of their white classmates’ forefathers. But it is precisely this race-specific discomfort that civil rights law protects students against.
While the symbols in question have always been racist, the gradual erosion of systemic discrimination has ensured that minorities now have greater presence and power on college campuses, and that administrations face greater social pressures to consider their views. These developments are, in no small part, the result of legislative and judicial activism in the form of the Civil Rights Act and related statutes and case law. Students who’ve gained hard-earned access to these learning environments shouldn’t be forced to rely on measures like having to engage in protests, while their classmates are enjoying the full benefits of college life, to ensure that there are places where they can focus on their work. If they choose to seek legal redress, the courts will have a strong case with which to reckon. Any decision to remove these symbols will not be an erasure of history, but a firm and proud assertion of these students’ place within it.