Karen Long: Susan M. Schweik's "The Ugly Law" exposes obscure law of discrimination

Roundup: Talking About History

Consider the smiling young man in white tie and cap, whose photo appeared in a 1916 report by the"Committee on Cripples of the Welfare Federation of Cleveland." His name is not recorded, but Cleveland's ugly law, banning"diseased, maimed and deformed persons" from appearing in public, cost him his job.

Don't see the problem? Look closer -- the vendor has clubbed hands and feet.

"Although it [the law] seems rather hard," the report states,"he appreciated the meaning of it, but considered it ill-advised unless some steps went with it for providing other opportunity for work for cripples."

Susan M. Schweik, the scholar who found and published this photo for her provocative, disturbing new book,"The Ugly Law," asks this question:"What was it, exactly, that this man, in his guarded, strategic protest, is said to appreciate?"

Her book is filled with such nuanced inquiry as she traces the first incident of this law's enforcement to 1867 San Francisco to its last -- in Omaha, in 1974.

In this final episode, an Omaha police officer wanted to arrest a homeless man and combed the municipal code for a pretext. He found the ugly law still on the books, arrested his target, and wrote him up for"marks and scars on his body."

Judge Walter Cropper was incredulous, but city prosecutor Gary Bucchino insisted"the law is still active, the man just didn't meet the qualifications in my judgment." Bear in mind this was a year after amendments to the federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act banned discrimination against people with disabilities.


The Ugly Law

By Susan M. Schweik.

New York University Press, 439 pp., $35.

"The Ugly Law" explores the welter of complexities and unease"around a petty ordinance, barely enforced, small-minded and obscure," as Schweik candidly describes it. She is scrupulous about context and ambiguity, and how the modern disability movement used this law as a rallying point for political purposes of its own.

Schweik, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is deeply interested in how this ordinance reads us -- our impulse to police identities and the meaning of our bodies.

In all its versions, from Columbus to Manila, the Philippines, the statute is embedded in urban politics. Being in cities meant encountering strangers, and, after the Civil War, beholding the war-injured and those maimed in factories....

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