February 27, 2008

Continuing Theme: Kids With Mohawks

Today's "kid with a mohawk" story is brought to you by way of Parma, Ohio, where a six-year-old has been suspended from a charter school for having the distinctive haircut. "I understand they have a dress code," the mother of the punished student said. "I understand he has a uniform. But this is total discrimination. They're singling out my son. They can't tell me how I can cut his hair."

This is exceptionally silly, and in my opinion the fault lies with the parents. While the kid says he likes the mohawk, he's six. Yes, a six-year-old is more than old enough to have preferences about things like that, but the barber takes his instructions from the kid's parents. And the kid probably wants to please his parents, so he says he likes the mohawk whether he has formed an opinion on the subject or not. So it's the parent's choice to have their kid's hair this way. And a mohawk is a haircut that is deliberately chosen for its distinctiveness, for its ability to make the wearer of the haircut stand out and call attention to him. (Or her, but we don't need to go down that path yet because I haven't noticed baby girls with mohawks. Yet.)

As for the school administrators, they most certainly can tell you how to cut the kid's hair. It's a charter school, meaning it has its own set of rules. If you accept that the school can impose a dress code, well, that includes the kind of hair styles the school deems acceptable. That means that you have agreed, in advance, to the school's officials deciding that a mohawk haircut is sufficiently out of the ordinary and distracting to other students that it's not appropriate in a classroom setting. However arbitrary that decision may seem to you, you've already agreed to live by their decision. What they can't do is force your child to attend their school at all.

To the extent that a haircut is protected First Amendment expression, I note that students neither shed all First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, nor do they enjoy the same level of free speech rights they would as adults in a public square. Their expression of free ideas must not conflict with the basic educational purpose of the school. I'm also not entirely sure what message a six-year-old is is expressing by wearing a mohawk haircut. A sixteen-year-old is expressing a message of defiance of authority, or at least one of advocating listening to punk rock music. I don't think that a six-year-old can be said to be doing the same thing. Now, I don't know exactly where the line gets crossed, and it's probably different from individual to individual. But it would be a very precocious six-year-old indeed who was able to formulate an anti-authoritarian or pro-punk rock concept.

And then there's the invocation of that bugaboo, "discrimination." You can "discriminate" based on a lot of different things, and not all of them are bad. The first thing we think of when the word "discrimination" comes to mind is racial discrimination, like whites-only drinking fountains in the South of the 1950's. No question that that kind of discrimination was bad. But if your employer requires a high school education for applicants to be eligible for a job, that employer is discriminating against uneducated people. Clearly, excluding uneducated people from a job that requires a certain level of mental ability is an acceptable form of discrimination -- and indeed, one that is probably necessary and beneficial.

So what's the difference? A law professor of mine put it nicely back when I was a 2L zygote-lawyer (maybe by second year you stop being a zygote and start being a blastocyst, but this is not the place for that kind of semantic quibble). A Black person has no choice about being Black. No ability to control it, or choose to be something different. But the high school diploma implies a certain level of achivement, something that someone can earn. What's more, only a minimal level of mental ability is needed to attain this achievement. So, someone without a high school diploma or its equivalent has in all likelihood chosen to forego that achievement. Perhaps that was a rational choice for them to make at the time. But that is a choice with consequences. That's why discriminating against people without high school diplomas is morally acceptable, while discriminating against people based on their race is not.

So, is the mohawk like race-based discrimination, or like education-based discrimination? That's an easy call. You have to go out of your way to get your kid a mohawk. The mohawk is a choice. So that means you get to live with the consequences of that choice, which includes other people disapproving of it.

What kind of a lesson does this teach the boy in question? Seems to me that it inhibits teaching him that society has conventions about what is and is not socially acceptable. Those lines are blurry enough as it is. It also teaches him that if he is somehow inappropriate in appearance or behavior, there will be authority figures who intervene on his behalf and attempt to make allowances for his benefit despite his breaking the rules. This can play out in all sorts of destructive ways.

Maybe not, we can hope. Sometimes a haircut is just a haircut and maybe none of this will matter in the future. Like I said above, this incident says nothing of importance about the child in question, who really does not have a lot of say in how this has played out, one way or the other. It has a lot more to do with his parents who thought that mohawking their six-year-old boy was a good idea, and the school administrators who have the temerity to say, "No, it's not." I'm siding with the administrators here.

UPDATE: A lawyer in the firm advises that when he was a kid, fifty-five years ago, he lived in a very rural, mountainous region of California, and his parents gave him and his brothers mohawk haircuts as a fun thing to do one summer. Apparently his dad was inspired by reading Last of the Mohicans. This hadn't occurred to me, because the mohawk haircut has taken on a meaning in today's world entirely different from the world in which my colleague lived as a child. I'd make a sizeable bet that the names "James Fenimore Cooper" and "Natty Bumppo" would not mean all that much to the parents of 95% of the kids walking around with mohawks today.

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