A lighthearted email has led to a nightmare for one Yale Law School student, who has had nine discrimination and harassment complaints filed against him and has been threatened with having his future career as an attorney withheld.
The situation began on September 15, when the law school student sent an email to the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA), of which he was a member, according to The Washington Free Beacon, who broke the story. The student, who has not been named, is part Cherokee and a member of NALSA and the conservative Federalist Society, a legal group founded by Yale Law students in 1982 and whose members include the current conservative Supreme Court justices and the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The student’s email invited classmates to a group hosted by NALSA and the Federalist society. The email read:
Hop you’re all still feeling social! This Friday at 7:30, 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. Planned attractions include Popeye’s chicken, basic-b****-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.), a cocktail station, assorted hard and soft beverages, and (most importantly) the opportunity to attend the NALSA Trap House’s inaugural mixer!
Hope to see you all there!
Just minutes after the email was sent, others screenshotted it and shared it to an online forum for all second-year law students, according to the Free Beacon. Some of the students claimed “trap house” was a term to describe a blackface party. In slang, a “trap house” refers to a place where people buy drugs. It is also, according to the Free Beacon, “generic slang for any place where young people can score beer.” Further, the popular socialist podcast “Chapo Trap House” made the phrase popular over the past five years. The Free Beacon noted that the podcast has received positive profiles in The New York Times and elsewhere without anyone raising concerns that the three white hosts were promoting blackface.
Yet Yale Law School students saw differently.
“I guess celebrating whiteness wasn’t enough,” the president of the Black Law Students Association wrote on the forum in response to the email. “Y’all had to upgrade to cosplay/black face.” She also claimed the Federalist Society “has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is black, is a member of the Federalist Society.
On September 16, the student who sent the email was called in for a meeting with the Office of Student Affairs for Yale Law due to the complaints. The student recorded the conversation from the meeting and provided it to the Free Beacon. The recording shows associate dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity director Yaseen Eldik telling the student that the word “trap” implies the use of crack, hip hop, and blackface. Eldik said those were “triggering associations” and were “compounded by the fried chicken reference,” which Eldik said “is often used to undermine arguments that structural and systemic racism has contributed to racial health disparities in the U.S.”
Further, Eldik said, the student’s membership in the Federalist Society “triggered” his classmates.
“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,” said Eldik, a former Obama White House official. “That of course obviously includes the LGBTQIA community and black communities and immigrant communities.”
As the Free Beacon noted, Eldik’s “statement signals that administrators at the country’s top-ranked law school now regard membership in mainstream conservative circles as a legitimate object of offense—and as potential grounds for discipline.”
“A wider embrace of the stance conveyed by the Yale Law officials would effectively suppress—with the threat of disciplinary action—views and associations that have until now been commonplace in elite legal circles,” the outlet added.
During the meeting on September 16 and another conversation the next day, Eldik and Cosgrove repeatedly implied that if the student didn’t apologize, he may find it difficult to be admitted to the bar due to his “character and fitness” investigations. Cosgrove, as associate dean, would be able to comment on the student’s character during this portion of the bar exam.
“I worry about this leaning over your reputation as a person,” Eldik added. “Not just here but when you leave. You know the legal community is a small one.”
Cosgrove implored the student to apologize to Yale’s Black Law Students Association, saying on September 17 that “there’s a bar you have to take… So we think it’s really important to give you a 360 view.”
The student asked to have an in-person meeting with anyone offended by his email, but Eldik wrote an apology for the student to send as part of his “character-driven rehabilitation.”
The draft letter apologized for “any harm, trauma, or upset” caused by the email. The apology concluded: “I know I must learn more and grow… [a]nd I will actively educate myself so I can do better.”
The student refused to send the note and instead invited students in the forum to discuss their concerns with him directly. Because he hadn’t apologized by the evening of September 16, Eldik and Cosgrove emailed the second-year law school class condemning the email.
“[A]n invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language,” they said in the email. “We condemn this in the strongest possible terms” and “are working on addressing this.”
Also during that September 16 meeting, Eldik suggested the student’s race may keep him from facing consequences.
“As a man of color, there probably isn’t as much scrutiny of you as there might be of a white person in the same position,” Eldik said. “I just want to acknowledge that there’s a complexity to that too.”
Nearly a month after the email was sent, Eldik and Cosgrove insisted they would not put anything in the student’s file that could keep him from passing the bar exam.
“We would never get on our letterhead and write anything to the bar about you,” Eldik said, according to the Free Beacon. “You may have been confused.”