Racist Writing as a Teen Haunted GMU Candidate
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
On Kiwi Camara's biographical Web site, the 22-year-old legal phenom lists several accolades -- his prestigious law fellowship, a coveted federal appeals court clerkship and, not to be forgotten, his graduation magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.
Perhaps emboldened by his accomplishments, Camara instructs readers to do something that, even for average people, could be considered career suicide.
"Google me!" the Web site says.
The results reveal something from Camara's past that has followed him throughout his brief career and that last week may have cost him a teaching job at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington County.
Camara, a native Filipino who grew up in Hawaii and enrolled at Harvard Law School at age 16, had been on track to become an assistant professor at GMU's law school. But his candidacy was derailed after the law school's dean, Daniel D. Polsby, publicized the possible appointment so he could hear what students had to say before making a final decision.
During Camara's first year at Harvard Law School in 2002, he fueled a controversy when he wrote racist remarks in a voluminous summary of a 1948 Supreme Court decision that barred restrictive covenants based on race. He then posted the writing on a Web site designed to help other law students.
In the five years since he wrote the racist phrase, it has surfaced from campus to campus, job interview to job interview -- a predicament that raises a broader question perfectly fit for these Google times: What's the appropriate standard for judging a teenager years later?
The questions emerged with renewed intensity for Camara, he said in an interview, and for George Mason law students, who said Camara's possible hiring triggered fresh debate on campus about race and the school's politically conservative image.
Camara, who is teaching a course at the Northwestern University School of Law in Illinois on a fellowship awarded by the Washington-based Federalist Society, declined to say why he is no longer a candidate for a teaching position at George Mason. He said he did not mean to use the racist language as a law student and that it was an isolated instance.
"There was no premeditation. It wasn't a decision, and that obviously sounds not plausible because that's what anyone in my position would say. But there's nothing I can really do to counteract the implausibility," Camara said. "But I find it highly understandable why people continue to raise the issues. I frankly don't care what my colleagues did at 16, but I think it's perfectly appropriate for people to care what I did at age 16."
At George Mason's law school, the faculty had authorized Polsby to hire Camara as an assistant professor, but the dean wanted to first see what students, alumni and others thought. He scheduled a town hall meeting for last night, but the meeting was nixed after Camara's application was withdrawn.
"The last thing people in leadership positions want is that there's a sense that they're skulking around and not being open and transparent as the circumstances allow," Polsby said, declining to say whether he wanted to hire Camara. "As a general rule, we are all better off living in a world in which it is possible to make a mistake and apologize and move on. But what if the one strike is blowing up an airline and killing a lot of people? It's a judgment call."
Students were grateful that Polsby plugged them into a sensitive personnel matter, but at the same time they remained ambivalent. Some wondered why Camara had made it as far as he did in the hiring process; others were more sympathetic to the fact that Camara cannot shake off something he did when he was not even 18.
"Having top-notch faculty and faculty that respect other people's differences aren't mutually exclusive," said Rex Flynn, 31, a third-year student who is president of the school's Black Law Students Association. "We shouldn't have to be put in the position where we have to defend the 'n-word' by our professor."
Matthew Feeks, a first-year law student who is white, said Camara's language was offensive. But he said he could also relate, in general, to doing stupid things as a teenager and wondered whether enough time had passed for Camara to move on. "I've done plenty of dumb things, especially when I was 17, but nothing like what he did," he said.