Revolutionary is not a word that I often or easily apply to the books that I read. Some books, while entertaining, do not adjust my world view or even how I view myself. Some books which set out to adjust my world view or self-preception, don't, because of a wealth of technical jargon or a "so out there" premise that I can't wrap my brain around it. However, some books are written so that they are simply stunning, beautiful, and true, revolutionary; that after you finish them, you see yourself, the world, and your thinking dramatically changed. This is one such book, written by law professor Kenji Yoshino, called "Covering".
"Covering" is essentially a book about Civil Rights, its past, present, and future, and what role the law has played in this epic American struggle. In a stroke of brilliance, Yoshino intertwines his own personal coming-out story in between the pages; in a beautiful and quite amazing blend of memoir and history and jurisprudence.
Yoshino traces the movements of the struggle of civil rights by suggesting there are three phases that groups transverse through to attain their place "at the table". The first, conversion, suggests that the member of the group needs to not be themselves but "convert" to the norm. The second phase, "passing", suggests that we accept ourselves, but do not acknowledge it to others. Finally, after becoming public, "covering" is the phase in which we purposefully steer away from things that are related to our group so as not to fall into stereotypes of our group. Yoshino not only suggests that individuals travel through these phases, which he so wonderfully illustrates with episodes from his own poignant life, but the larger groups as a whole travel through these phases as they seek for identity.Read more ›
In this extraordinary and beautiful book, Kenji Yoshino contends that covering (the term is borrowed from Erving Goffman) is the civil rights issue of our age. Drawing on actual cases, he persuasively illustrates that the courts fail to protect men and women who refuse to "cover," mute, or conceal those aspects of their identities that are socially stigmatized (i.e. their gayness, their status as mothers, their racial identities). If this were all the book did, it would be significant enough. But Yoshino combines his legal and historical arguments with a memoir in which he "uncovers" his various selves--his lawyer self, his gay self, his Asian American self, and his poetic self. In doing so, he empowers his readers to do the same and to think about the connection between living one's own life honestly and the larger project of human emancipation.
In lucid terms that escape the legalese that burdens related books, Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino discusses a topic that I never really knew had a formal definition. He describes "covering" as the purposeful act of toning down a "disfavored identity" to fit into the mainstream. Since notions of disfavored identities can get subjective, anyone can cover, whether people are members of ethnic minority groups hiding specific cultural behaviors or even white males hiding less discernible problems such as depression, alcoholism or backgrounds that embarrass them. Consequently, given the pervasiveness of such behavior, covering would seem comparatively innocuous, but Yoshino provides ample evidence that covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights. Moreover, it is becoming more of a civil rights issue as the nation's courts struggle with an increasingly multi-ethnic America.
His penetrating book is a hybrid between a revelatory memoir and a level-headed treatise on the unacceptability of the current legal doctrine around our civil rights. Toward the latter point, Yoshino discusses covering within the broader context of often egregious civil rights injustices. As he explains it, the courts are mired in group-based identity politics and driven by calls for equality. For example, to sue successfully under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, a group claiming discrimination has one of two options. First, the group could argue that it has been denied a fundamental right, like the right to vote. Alternatively, it can contend that the law in question employs a suspect classification, i.e., that the law unjustly singles out a particular group.Read more ›
It's unfortunate that I only get to say that Professor Yoshino's book is the "best book I've read in a year." That, if anything underestimates how pathbreaking this memoir/proposal is, but unfortunately for the good professor I read Democracy and Distrust last year, and it's tough to top that.
In any event, Professor Yoshino's book is powerfully written and intellectual engaging. Perhaps its greatest contribution is its noble endeavor to show how Covering affects ALL of us, not just the marginalized or disenfranchised. Everybody covers, and everybody is harmed by it. Far from diluting his claim, this frank admission offers a way out from traditional civil rights discourse, which is increasingly viewed as provincial, dogmatic, and overly combative. Even people who are sympathetic to traditional (and more radical) civil rights efforts recognize this problem--the "race to the bottom" by which anybody who wants to comment on marginalization has to show how S/he personally has been suppressed by the system. But oppression is cross-cutting: the population of black third-world atheist lesbian disabled midgets is rather small, but the number of people who are forced in some ways to deny who they are is much larger. Yoshino, as one unsympathetic commentator pointed out, is in many ways a child of privilege--getting to attend elite private schools and teaching at a top university. But on the other hand, he clearly has faced his share of marginalization--Asian-American homosexuals are not exactly at the pinnacle of social acceptance. By offering a way to incorporate everybody into the fight for the authentic self, Yoshino can help bring back into the fold those oft-maligned "children of privilege" who are sympathetic to the goal of social equality, but have been left unsure of their status in the fight for that goal.
I salute his efforts, and admire his erudite contribution to this critical conversation.