The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Trent Colbert, a Yale Law student who belongs to the Native American Law Students Association (he's part Cherokee) and the conservative Federalist Society, had invited classmates to an event cohosted by both groups. "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," he wrote. The invitation promised "Popeye's chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.)" and hard and soft drinks.
It is unsurprising that Colbert did not know all the connotations of "trap house." The term, which originally referred to crack houses in poor neighborhoods, has, according to Urban Dictionary, "since been abused by high-school students who like to pretend they're cool by drinking their mom's beer together and saying they're part of a 'traphouse.'" It is one of a huge variety of slang terms from marginalized urban culture that have entered the mainstream, where many people acquire it ignorant of its etymology.
The invitation was almost instantly screenshotted and shared to an online forum for law students. The president of the Black Law Students Association reportedly wrote in the forum, "I guess celebrating whiteness wasn't enough. Y'all had to upgrade to cosplay/black face." She also objected to the mixer's affiliation with the Federalist Society, which she said "has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric." The school's Office of Student Affairs received nine discrimination and harassment complaints….
When Colbert hadn't apologized by that same evening [after being encouraged to apologize by Yale administrators], [the administrators,] Eldik and Cosgrove emailed the entire second-year class about the incident. An "invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language," the email read. "We condemn this in the strongest possible terms" and "are working on addressing this." Here mediation has ceased. The law school has taken it upon itself to declare who is right and who is wrong. Colbert was publicly branded as "racist" before his peers. "They sent that out," he told me, "while they were on the phone with me telling me that there's no judgment here."
In a brief follow-up meeting on September 17, which Colbert also recorded, Eldik says, "You're a law student, and there's a bar you have to take. So we think it's really important to give you a 360 view." This is more menacing than anything that was said the previous day. It suggests that this episode might be brought up to the character and fitness inquiry of a bar admission. …
People come to the university with radically different narratives about themselves and the world. That generates some mighty intense disagreements. Members of a university need to work together peacefully even when they find one another's deepest convictions wrong or offensive. It can be valuable to have someone in the administration that students can complain to, whose job it is to detect and de-escalate conflict. (It is obviously difficult for a student to approach a professor to complain about racial insensitivity.)
What that administrator must be wary of doing is adopting one side's narrative and imposing it on everyone. An explanation of why the "trap house" email offended some people was helpful. An official statement pronouncing it "racist" was destructive, as was the semi-official implication that the Federalist Society is oppressive.
For a detailed (opinionated, but as best I can tell quite accurate) account, see this item at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Aaron Terr).