In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, sociologist Alice Goffman – author of an award-winning book that followed a group of African-American men in Philadelphia over six years – addressed accusations that her book presents an implausible account of police practices. When the magazine reporter sought corroboration from the police themselves about certain of these alleged practices, Goffman challenged the notion that “[t]he way to validate the claims in the book is by getting officials who are white men in power to corroborate them.” She continued, “The point of the book is for people who are written off and delegitimated to describe their own lives and to speak for themselves about the reality they face, and this is a reality that goes absolutely against the narratives of officials or middle-class people. So finding ‘legitimate’ people to validate the claims – it feels wrong to me on just about every level.”
In his new article, Dismissal, David Schraub takes aim at exactly the phenomenon that Goffman describes: the act of dismissal, by which “the interpretive frames proffered by [a] claimant [are portrayed] as illegitimate and the testimonial offerings of the claimant as irrational.” (p. 28.) (To be clear, neither Schraub nor this review engage with the substance of the criticisms of Goffman’s work, but rather to use her comments about corroboration and validation as a jumping-off point. Schraub does not discuss Goffman in his article.) Schraub is concerned both with courts’ dismissal of novel legal claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b), and with dismissal in its broader sense, “a decision (in any deliberative context) to dispense with a proffered claim prior to considering its merits.” (p. 3.)
An act of dismissal is profound, as it communicates that the dismissed claim, and the claimant, are unworthy of even minimal substantive recognition and engagement. Dismissal thus works a different harm than a loss on the merits, which occurs at the end of a process that gives the claimant a voice and leaves open the possibility of a successful adjudication. Schraub’s thoughtful unpacking of “dismissal” and its consequences fits well into the rich existing employment discrimination literature on the variety of subtle forms that discrimination can take and the fate of the plaintiffs who seek to make such claims in court. Just as Goffman describes the deligitimation of her subjects’ narratives, these plaintiffs may find their claims deligitimated and dismissed, as the version of discrimination that they present does not square with the one accepted by courts and society as a whole. Schraub’s portrayal of courts is ultimately positive, however, as he notes that, so long as a claim “adheres to certain preset conventions,” a court must give it at least an initial hearing, creating the possibility of eventual recognition, even if that recognition only comes after many dismissals. (p. 65.)
Schraub enters this discussion by examining the way in which judges and laypeople dismiss claims of race discrimination. In Schraub’s view, the act of dismissal, whether by a judge or a layperson, is fundamentally boundary-enforcing. Courts dismiss discrimination claims that push beyond what prior courts have deemed justiciable; laypeople’s dismissals – the accusation that the speaker is “playing the race card,” for example – enforce and perpetuate “deeply ingrained understandings regarding the meaning of discrimination[.]” (p. 5.) Schraub points out that the two forms of dismissal are interrelated. When courts mark off the boundaries of legally cognizable race discrimination, they influence the popular conception of what counts as a “legitimate” claim of racism, as “people take courts to be privileged speakers in articulations of our collective moral code.” (p. 63.) Popular conceptions of race discrimination claimants as manipulative complainers may also filter into the courtroom. Here, Schraub echoes observations by scholars such as Michael Selmi, who has noted that “courts often seem mired in a belief that [race discrimination] claims are generally unmeritorious, brought by whining plaintiffs who have been given too many, not too few, breaks along the way.” Thus, dismissal is a conservative act, used to shut down claims of discrimination that deviate from what courts and society have previously deemed to be valid.
Schraub also investigates the connections between dismissal and epistemology, or the ability to “know.” He notes that the act of dismissal can cause not only practical harm – the loss of a legal claim in court – but also a dignitary loss suffered by the claimant, a fundamental discounting of the claimant’s power to perceive and communicate his or her reality. The act of dismissal attacks the “testimonial contributions” of the claimant; it elevates the dismisser’s knowledge of the situation – attenuated and second-hand – over the first-hand knowledge of the person who claims race discrimination. Similar to Goffman, who wants to preserve people’s ability “to speak for themselves about the reality they face,” Schraub finds this troubling, an act of “epistemic injustice.” He summarizes, “Whom we credit as knowers—whose contentions gain a respectful hearing and whose fail to rise above the din—is a matter of significant consequence.” (p. 3–4.)
However, Schraub redeems courts in the end. As he observes, courts may not “shunt aside” a discrimination claim “simply because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable” (p. 65); they are institutionally bound to give even boundary-pushing claims at least an initial hearing. After enough hearings, courts may come around, and the “narratives of officials or middle-class people,” in Goffman’s words, may thus expand to encompass formerly dismissable claims of race discrimination, just as those narratives now recognize once-dismissable claims of sexual harassment as justiciable. Though he does not present his work in quite this way, Schraub is thus interested in the circumstances under which legal and popular understandings of discrimination stretch to accommodate changed conditions on the ground, the moments in which new forms of discrimination are recognized by courts and society. His work provides a valuable theoretical framework for thinking about these moments of recognition, and also about the many acts of dismissal that precede them.