Breaking the Code of Silence on Race in Law School
Editor’s Note: According to students present during the Black History Month celebration described below, the professor involved in the incident was LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack M. Weiss. The group of students described as “mostly black” was “all black.” As one student wrote me, “I think it is important to let people know that it wasn’t a mixed crowd- we were all black and the comment was directed towards us specifically because we were black.”
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There is an unspoken rule here in Louisiana: Do not talk about race. The rule should surprise few. After all, race is intermingled with the state’s history, institutions, and current policies. We were a slave state. We were a Jim Crow state. Our schools were segregated. Some of our schools are still segregated. Our prisons are disproportionately populated by men of color. The list goes on. To openly discuss race is too complex or too uncomfortable for polite conversation. So society has determined race is off the table.
But to talk about race is to educate. Too often, the norm extends beyond polite conversation and into places where race is relevant — the law school classroom, for example. At the Louisiana State University Law Center, where we both study, the silence on race is deafening. It is deafening because race is never really off the table. Students discuss race with members of their own racial group, but they rarely have interracial conversations on race. As a result, students never learn about other people’s lives or experiences — they never become culturally competent. And when race is off the table, even the best-intentioned faculty risk losing the ability to engage with their students.
Take the following exchange at the LSU Law Center for example: A group of mostly black students was gathered in the Law Center’s lobby when an older, white faculty member walked into the building. Passing by the group on the way to the elevator, the faculty member said, “What is this, a craps game?” Flashing a grin, the faculty member disappeared into the elevator.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. The question was not objectively offensive, at least in the sense of the individual words. The faculty member’s grin denied any overt animosity to the group. When the elevator doors closed, the faculty member probably congratulated himself for successfully engaging with students, a rare feat in law school. He likely chuckled at his cleverness, never knowing he had just insulted all who’d heard. He also probably never realized the students were gathering as part of an event the LSU Law Center’s chapter of the National Black Law Students Association was sponsoring for Black History Month.
Microaggressions work that way: The speaker may not actually intend to harm his victims. To the privileged majority, microaggressions often seem innocuous, but to the minority at the receiving end, microaggressions “resonate with past experience and contribute to an ongoing sense of being fatally out of place,” as Boston College Law School Professor Catharine Wells puts it. For a black student at a once-segregated law school, where only three of the 36 full-time faculty members are non-white, in a state with more black men in prison than in college, a white professor’s glib remark can be distressing, demoralizing, and isolating. It says to students, “You are different. I noticed. You do not belong here.” In effect, microaggressions prevent integration, thus preventing people from learning from and about one another’s perspectives. The faculty member’s remark invaded students’ celebration of heritage and killed the spirit of their gathering.
Casually comparing a gathering of black students to “a craps game,” however, is more than a microaggression. The comparison is old-school racial stereotyping. The stereotypical image of a black man “shooting dice while speaking ungrammatical English,” according to Professor Leland Ware, has a name — “coon.”
The faculty member most definitely would not have called the students a bunch of “coons.” He did not mean his comment to be offensive the way “coon” would be. Nevertheless, it only takes a small amount of historical or cultural understanding to realize the faculty member’s seemingly harmless joke is rife with prejudice, hurt, and hate. The faculty member never apologized for his comment. He probably never realized his statement’s meaning or impact.
That a successful lawyer, litigator, and constitutional scholar at a flagship state law school has such a glaring lack of cultural competency is the result of a law school and legal profession that do not give meaningful valuation to diversity. That must change. Silence is no longer an option.
A growing coalition of students has chosen to break the unspoken rule that has prohibited them from openly discussing race at the LSU Law Center. The coalition, which includes both authors, was moved to action by scenarios like the “craps game” comment and by the school’s recent decision to recruit 17 “master lawyers and judges” — 15 of whom are white — to teach a one-week intersession course called “Apprenticeship Week.”
At the outset, only three of the LSU Law Center’s 36 full-time faculty members are people of color. Of course, decisions to hire full-time faculty have occurred over decades, during which the Law Center’s decision making has progressed from its overtly segregated history. But the Law Center secured Apprenticeship Week faculty on an ad hoc basis, with all the lawyers in the world (quite literally, since LSU has historically hired some esteemed international faculty) from which to select instructors, which makes Apprenticeship Week an ideal microcosm of decision making at the school. That the Law Center’s recruiting practices ultimately led to an overwhelmingly white faculty speaks for itself. The message this sends to students, especially minority students, is that only white men are “master lawyers and judges” fit to teach practical legal skills.
The LSU Law Center is not alone. According to the American Bar Association, only one in five full-time law school professors is a racial minority. But even by that standard, the LSU Law Center is behind the curve: One fifth of the full-time faculty would be seven full-time non-white faculty members. LSU has three.
Faculty diversity, like student diversity, provides for meaningful interracial interactions, which helps all better understand different points of view on law and society. Furthermore, a diverse faculty provides much-needed role models for women and racial minorities, who have traditionally been excluded from the legal profession. At schools like the LSU Law Center, where student diversity has outpaced faculty diversity, women and minority students have fewer opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with professors whose life experiences and paths in the legal profession may help guide them through law school. There are around 130 people of color at LSU Law, but they only have three full-time faculty members who are, frankly, like them. As University of California at Davis School of Law Dean Kevin R. Johnson wrote in 2011, faculty diversity extends well beyond providing role models. Among other things, diversity brings fresh perspectives to legal topics, challenges students to think critically, exposes professors and students to innovation, and influences new scholarship.
When the LSU Law Center selected an almost all-white group of practicing lawyers to teach intersession, the school denied students and faculty an educational benefit. It is the moral duty of every law school in the United States to ensure decision-making processes give meaningful valuation to diversity, because the increasingly diverse world will leave behind those lawyers who do not understand people different from themselves.
Reforming law schools and the legal profession begins with students. Law students must, as students at LSU are beginning to do, break the silence that prohibits us from openly discussing race. Only then will we all learn to respect one another.
Cross-posted from The Huffington Post. Co-written with Andrew Hairston.
Image courtesy of malik ml williams, via Flickr.