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Scholars explore lingering roadblocks to equality

November 11, 2014

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Tulane Associate Law Professor Saru Matambanadzo and Cumberland Law Professor Wendy Greene (L ’02) discussed workplace discrimination issues during a Nov. 7 Forum on the Future of Law & Inequality.


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Grace and Gordon Gamm (L ’70), joining Associate Professor Saru Matambanadzo (center), provided the Gordon Gamm Faculty Scholar award that made the conference on law and inequality possible.

Should the law protect a dental assistant from getting fired when her boss decided she was too sexy and his wife feared he would cheat?

Is it illegal discrimination for workers to taunt a colleague with “Juan Valdez” and “go back to Mexico” — when he isn’t Hispanic? 

Can employers ignore requests for lactation rooms for new mothers who return to work while still nursing their infants?

Scholars from across the United States wrestled with these and a sweeping range of other questions about inequality during a day-long conference at Tulane Law School Nov. 7.

Panels covered voter suppression, immigrant detention, hurdles faced by low-income parents and much more as participants examined ways in which the law can better address different forms of discrimination.

“My answer to inequality is to create more … opportunities for imagination,” Tulane Associate Professor Saru Matambanadzo, who organized the conference, told participants.

University of Chicago Law Professor Mary Anne Case’s keynote address wrapped same-sex marriage, corporate power and declining respect for universities into a discussion of “the new feudalism” — a trend she sees of rights increasingly depending on an individual’s attachments, to an employer, a church or other groups.

The plenary panel featured Professors Angela Mae Kupenda of Mississippi College of Law, Laura Kessler of the University of Utah, Angela Harris of the University of California, Davis, and Francisco Valdes of the University of Miami School of Law.   

In the audience throughout the day were retired trial lawyer Gordon Gamm (L ’70) and his wife, Grace, whose gift to the law school created the Gordon Gamm Faculty Scholar award for an early-career Tulane Law professor conducting interdisciplinary work.

Matambanadzo, who was named the Gamm Faculty Scholar in the spring, said her current research and writing explore legal gaps and hurdles faced by pregnant women. For instance, she said, while the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act clearly treats pregnancy discrimination as sex discrimination, “it’s created a whole lot of contradiction and lack of clarity in the law.” 

Conference presenters included three Tulane Law graduates, Professors Wendy Greene (L ’02) of Samford University’s Cumberland Law School, Lucy Jewell (L ’00) of the University of Tennessee and Isabel Medina (L ’87) of Loyola University in New Orleans.

During a panel on workplace inequality, Greene offered examples of what she called “the dark side” to court interpretations of the key federal law barring employment discrimination, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the case of a black man whose boss dismissed his complaint that co-workers tormented him mistakenly thinking he’s Hispanic, Greene said that “it’s plausible the courts would find he can’t seek relief” unless he shows that his treatment was based on his actually being Hispanic or it was based on his black ancestry.

Medina, who teaches constitutional law, discussed changes in access to legal education. And Jewel, who teaches legal writing, suggested that debate about lifting people from poverty should take into account scientific findings that environmental stresses can damage health and cause other negative outcomes.     

Gordon Gamm called the conference “a wonderful experience.”

“I think Saru did a fantastic job of bringing together a high quality of speakers and thoughtful interchange,” he said.

 
   


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