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Song of Sophomores II: The Other Half of Humanity

When I first started university teaching, I was many times the bearer of shocking news to some young woman that her grandmother was not allowed to vote. By the time I retired, the news that I had personally observed black people required to use separate drinking fountains was shocking to many. This is what we get when we agree to shove controversial and inconvenient truths down the memory hole in K-12.

RELATED: How to Shock Sophomores: Tell Them the Truth About U.S. History (Part I of this column)

I expect that Indian kids who know that their great-grandparents could not leave the reservation without a note from the Indian agent learned it from their elders and not from the public schools. I was born and raised where Indians were the largest minority population and the Trail of Tears that brought my ancestors and the Creeks I was raised among to Oklahoma was barely mentioned.

The horrors of President Jackson’s Removal and the widespread and sometimes violent resistance to allotment of our reservations that created Oklahoma were threats to our immediate ancestors we learned about at home or did not learn.

Still, women ride the historical bus behind most ethnic groups, even Indians. British women got the vote in 1918; American women in 1920; Irish women in 1922. There are countries where people still don’t vote and countries where the voting population does not include women. Now. Today. As we speak.

How can I say sex discrimination is the hardest nut to crack when LGBT people are still disadvantaged by law as well as by custom? Because the legal status of LGBT people is a prime example of sex discrimination. What the law is doing is disadvantaging a set of human beings because they do not conform to gender stereotypes.

When I began to practice law, women could not wear pants in federal court. Perhaps they could in state court because the judges were elected. While I was in law school, Texas passed a law that allowed married women to get credit in their own names.

“Everybody knew” at some point that women can’t wear pants, women don’t need to make as much money as men, a married woman does not need her own credit card, and the result of allowing women to vote will be to give married men two votes while their bachelor brothers only have one.

Even today, too many people “know” that men don’t publicly display affection for each other, that intersex children should be surgically altered, that gender dysphoria in children should be suppressed by force, that marriage is between one man and one woman. All of these hurtful and sometimes deadly policies rest on gender stereotypes.

The thing about stereotypes, the reason for their power, is that they start with a kernel of truth. Shall we discuss “Indian time”? Folks in my circle used to routinely lie to a dear friend of mine, a lawyer I will not even name by tribe so as not to cause her trouble, about what time a meeting was supposed to start. If we told her 5:30, we could get started by six.

Indian men point with their lips and have no butts. Then it can get more harmful. Indians cannot think in the linear manner of white people because they are wired differently. Indians cannot compete in an academic setting.

Stereotypes have just enough truth in them to stick. If they were fully truthful, of course, they would not need to be enforced by discriminatory laws. The stereotype of the butch lesbian and the effeminate gay man is like the lazy Indian and the violent black man. Lies with just enough anecdotes around to make them hard to kill.

The simultaneous truth and falsity of stereotypes and the slowly expanding universe of equality before the law are the kind of subtleties that escape the newly awakened sophomore.

As to stereotypes, they lurch to one side or the other based on the knowledge at the center of the universe: to wit, themselves.

MLK’s call to bend the arc of the moral universe falls on deaf sophomore ears, because all the heroes of human rights progress were in fact flawed. In the immortal description coined by the ultimate literary sophomore, Holden Caulfield, “phonies.”

Of my first career, Mr. Caulfield said lawyers are:

 …alright if they go around saving innocent guys' lives all the time, and like that, but you don't do that kind of stuff if you're a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides, even if you did go around saving guys' lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren't being a phony?

The cynicism and arrogance of sophomores can get you down if you allow it. You learn to keep your eye on the saving grace that most of them will shake it off, and a few of them will put their shoulders to the wheel and move our hypocritical nation of phony democrats a bit farther toward justice.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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