Theses Doctoral

Liminally-Recognized Groups: Between Equality and Dignity

Yona, Lihi

This dissertation explored existing tensions between legal structures aimed at achieving justice—specifically, concept of dignity and the concept of equality—and groups not fully recognized under the law (“Liminally-recognized groups”). It approached this tension from a critical perspective on identity, exploring it both in the U.S. and in Israel/Palestine. While not comparative in the traditional sense, the dissertation nevertheless journeyed between both geographies, drawing inspiration from each, and exploring similar questions and their differing (albeit parallel) answers in each locality. It examines the limitations of the concept of equality within anti-discrimination law, stemming mainly from its dependency upon legal recognition. Simultaneously, it similarly explores the perils of dignity-based universal protections, rooted in dignity’s cultural and racial biases.

For this purpose, all three chapters center groups in a liminal state of legal recognition—groups that often challenge dominant binaries of sex/race/disability—as a methodological vantage point from which to examine legal systems and orthodoxies. It analyzes law’s ability to see past recognition, and its effectiveness for groups who have yet to meet—and shoulder—the burden of recognition. Simultaneously, it explores the ability of liminally-recognized groups to see past the law, and to seek alternative routes for political power.

The first chapter, Coming Out of the Shadows: The Non-Western Critique of Dignity, focuses on the intersection between Mizrahi Jews (i.e., descendants of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries who immigrated to Israel) and the right to dignity, exploring this right’s racialized undertones within Israeli courts. Following a conceptual and cultural exploration of the development of dignity (a universal, status-neutral right) as the antithesis of honor, this chapter questions the strong divide and moral hierarchy between both terms. Applying critical race methodology, methods of close reading, and doctrinal analysis, it analyzes multiple legal cases to explore Western influences on the societal and judicial imagination of Israeli dignity. The chapter concludes by arguing that dignity’s pretense of universality obscures racial biases in its interpretation and application.

The second chapter, Whiteness at Work, focuses on U.S. antidiscrimination law and identity groups at the margins of whiteness. The chapter analyzes workplace discrimination cases where whites have sued other whites for racial discrimination. Examining intra-white racial discrimination cases, this chapter demonstrate that they suffer from an under-theorization of whiteness, and from the judicial assumption that race becomes relevant only in instances involving racial minorities. Instead, I argue, courts should recognize instances in which white people police other whites to behave according to racial expectations regarding whiteness as instances of racial discrimination. This could be implemented through Title VII’s stereotype doctrine. Accordingly, discrimination against whites due to their association with people of color, as well as discrimination against poor whites not seen as ‘refined’ or ‘sophisticated’ enough for the workplace, are both instances in which whites are discriminated against for failing to perform their racial identities according to white supremacist expectations.

The third and final chapter of the dissertation, Identity at Work, develops a thematic, overarching argument regarding liminally-recognized groups and their place within anti-discrimination law. Following an analysis of various types of liminal recognition under U.S. anti-discrimination law, and the normative case for and against recognition, I examine non-essentializing strategies to promote justice that do not force marginalized communities to leave their narratives of oppression (rooted in sexism, white supremacy, ableism, etc.) at the door, but that also do not force these communities to bind their oppression to a rigid sense of what it means to be who they are. The first strategy focuses on possible readings of anti-discrimination laws that enable recognition of patterns of racism, sexism, etc. without tying them back to specific (recognized) identities. The second strategy highlights the potential rooted in labor law to promote antidiscrimination ideals.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Thomas, Kendall
J.S.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 6, 2022