Injurious language (and the Lawrence family)

Working to clear out four more file drawers of accumulated papers (more recycling fodder, to follow on many dozens of file drawers of stuff that have already been sacrificed to the Great Recycler), I came across a print-out of a 1991 posting “Injurious language” to the Usenet newsgroup soc.motss. Still, I think, entirely relevant — and it takes us to a fascinating set of people connected to Chuck Lawrence (Charles R. Lawrence III).

(The current file drawers mostly have 10-15 years of printouts of soc.motss postings and personal e-mail. Very hard to give up. Now to get someone to haul the file cabinets to the dump; nobody wants file cabinets any more.)

Injurious language. And now, from 1991, lightly edited:

The following is reprinted (for a change, with the permission of the author, who is a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study this year (1990-91) and a Professor of Law at Stanford) from Charles R. Lawrence III, “If he hollers let him go: Regulating racist speech on campus” (Duke Law Review 1990.3.431-83). The article as a whole is extraordinary, and moving; there is a “Newsreel” first section, counterposing racist incidents from the press with statements criticizing proposals to regulate racism on campus, then a large main section organized like a standard law journal article, advocating the narrow regulation of racist (and sexist and homophobic) speech on campus, but with a number of stories from Chuck Chuck’s own life and the lives of his friends, and finally an “Epilogue” in which Chuck describes his feelings at one moment in his childhood, one playground occurrence of the counting-out rhyme “Enie, menie, minie, mo”. Chuck focuses on anti-black racism, but intends what he says to have application to verbal attacks on other subordinated groups, specifically including gay people, and includes several pointed stories about homophobia and its consequences..

[It turns out that Chuck went to Haverford with my man Jacques.  A small world…]


Many people called the incident [involving the painting of racist and anti-Semitic slogans and pictures at a private secondary school – among them “Kill the Tarbaby”] “isolated.” But black folks know that no racial incident is “isolated” in America. That is what makes the incidents so horrible, so scary. It is the knowledge that they are not the isolated unpopular speech of a dissident few that makes them so frightening.  These incidents are manifestations of an ubiquitous and deeply-ingrained cultural belief system, an American way of life. Too often in recent months, as I have debated this issue with friends and colleagues, I have heard people speak of the need to protect “offensive” speech.  The word offensive is used as if we were speaking of a difference in taste, as if I should learn to be less sensitive to words that “offend” me.[*] I cannot help but believe that those people who speak of offense – those who argue that this speech must go unchecked – do not understand the great difference between offense and injury… There is a great difference between the offensiveness of words you would rather not hear – because they are labeled dirty, impolite, or personally demeaning – and the *injury* inflicted by words that remind the world that you are fair game for physical attack, evoke in you all of the millions of cultural lessons regarding your inferiority that you have so painstakingly repressed, and imprint upon you a badge of servitude and subservience for all the world to see…

Brown v. Board of Education is a useful case for our analysis. Brown is helpful because it articulates the nature of the injury inflicted by the racist message of segregation. When one considers the injuries identified in the Brown decision, it is clear that racist speech causes tangible injury, and it is the kind of injury for which the law commonly provides, and even requires, redress.

[*Footnote 112:…I think that Cohen was rightly decided and that the Court was wrong in Pacifica – curse words may shock and offend but they do not constitute a direct account on the humanity of an individual or group. Moreover, curse words such as “shit” and “fuck” do not signal a set of beliefs concerning the inferiority, untouchability or legitimacy of exploiting a group that is subjected to systematic subordination. The exception to this, of course, is when the degradation of a particular subordinated group is contained in the meaning of the curse word, such as the word “cocksucker.” [p. 461f.]

The law professor. Chuck in his current, Hawaiian, incarnation, from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa website:


Charles R. Lawrence, III, Professor of Law, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Centennial Professor. Degrees: BA Haverford College, 1965; JD Yale Law School, 1969. Biography:

Professor Lawrence joined the William S. Richardson School of Law in 2008 from Georgetown. He began his teaching career at the University of San Francisco in 1974, was a tenured professor at Stanford and Georgetown, and has visited several other schools, including Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Southern California. Professor Lawrence is best known for his prolific work in antidiscrimination law, equal protection, and critical race theory. His most recent book, We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), was co-authored by Professor Mari Matsuda.


The preceding book (1993):


Chuck’s family. Chuck and Mari are married. About Mari, from Wikipedia:


Mari J. Matsuda (born 1956 [in Hawaii, of Okinawan ancestry]) is an American lawyer, activist, and law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii. Matsuda returned to Richardson in the fall of 2008. Prior to her return to Hawaii, Matsuda was a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center, specializing in the fields of torts, constitutional law, legal history, feminist theory, critical race theory, and civil rights law.

Now to Chuck’s sister Sara. Yes, this is relevant. From Wikipedia:


Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (born August 2, 1944) is an American sociologist who examines the culture of schools, the patterns and structures of classroom life, socialization within families and communities, and the relationships between culture and learning styles. She is the Emily Hargroves Fisher professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a 1984 MacArthur Genius.

Chuck went to Haverford; Sara went to Swarthmore. More important, she’s the author of this book:


Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer is Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s 1988 biography of her mother, Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, who was one of the first black women to graduate from Cornell University and Columbia University’s School of Medicine.

… The book examines four generations of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s family, following her mother’s childhood (primarily in Vicksburg, Mississippi), her move to Harlem to finish high school while living with her grandmother, her college education at Cornell University then medical school at Columbia University [Cornell Medical School refused her because they did not admit blacks, so she went to Columbia], then her eventual career as a pediatrician, then psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Phyllis Crockett described Balm in Gilead as “the story of how Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence became who she is: a successful retired child psychiatrist, widow of the equally successful sociologist Dr. Charles Lawrence, and mother of three children who are successful in their careers. The book probes how she achieved that success despite the psychological scars of racism and sexism.”

… H. Jack Geiger writing for The New York Times said, “We are indebted to [Lawrence-Lightfoot] (and her mother and father) for their candid portrait of this black Southern middle-class version of a journey – so different from that of Richard Wright’s Black Boy or the passage of Malcolm X – that is a central theme in black American fiction and biography,” traveling “across the rugged terrain of race and gender in America.”

Wikipedia on the admirable Margaret Morgan Lawrence:


Margaret Cornelia Morgan Lawrence (born August 10, 1914) is an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, gaining those qualifications in 1948. Her work included clinical care, teaching, and research, particularly into the presence and development of ego strength in inner-city families. Lawrence studied young children identified as “strong” by their teachers in Georgia and Mississippi, as well as on sabbatical in Africa in 1973, writing two books on mental health of children and inner-city families. Lawrence was chief of the Developmental Psychiatry Service for Infants and Children (and their families) at Harlem Hospital for 21 years, as well as associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, retiring in 1984.


One Response to “Injurious language (and the Lawrence family)”

  1. Ellen Says:

    Nobody wants filing cabinets? Really? I’d give an arm and a leg for more good-quality (i.e., no plastic rollers!) second-hand filing cabinets! Have you tried putting them on Craigslist?

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