I go to a really progressive school. As in, my classmates keep the granola industry in business. As in, I’ve been able to go through law school with a course schedule loaded up with social-justice and civil rights classes (I never took Secured Transactions!). I think the majority of my classmates are well-meaning people who care about others.
But there’s a saying about good intentions. Something about hell and roads.
As much as we want to do good, when we students are unable or unwilling to engage our own privileges, we wind up perpetuating evil. Many of us go to schools where we are surrounded by relatively wealthy, well-educated, white, able-bodied people. For most of our lives, we have existed in a society that privileges us.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard or deserve our successes, but we have to realize a couple things:
- We’re advantaged in ways that disadvantage others, whether we intend for this to happen or not.
- It’s really, really, convenient to ignore #1.
During our legal educations, rarely, and sometimes never, are we asked to investigate racial inequality or systemic racism. Our social circles continue to be a fairly privileged bunch. We can talk about legal issues in old cases like Brown or Loving, but when it comes to Bakke, we clam up. We defend the Supreme Court’s McClesky decision because “we’re not racist, but…”
Our professors tend not to challenge us on our preconceived notions or the invisible racism (this “unconscious racism”) in the background of the decisions we read. When our classmates mostly look and think like us, we don’t get the real confrontation necessary to become effective advocates for people who are truly disadvantaged by centuries-old systemic racism. Given the expense and fossilized classism of the legal education structure, the people suffering most from institutional racism have become practically invisible to us. They certainly aren’t sitting next to us in class.
We either disengage from tough questions about race – staying quiet in our Con Law lectures or not signing up for a Civil Rights course, or we get defensive because we misunderstand the issues our cases represent. Whichever reaction we have, it hampers our educational progress.
I’ve heard the phrase “I don’t see color” more than I care to, even in classes like Civil Rights Law – which are all about the ways in which color operates on civil and criminal justice. Let’s just be clear here, “I don’t see color” translates to “I am too lazy to analyze systemic racism, so I pretend it doesn’t exist and thus never have to be uncomfortable with my unearned racial privilege.”
Bring up race in class? Suddenly, every white student jumps to say, “But I’m not a racist, don’t judge all white people!” Look. I’m sure you’re a lovely person and everything. If a case or a classmate’s anecdote criticizes racism, and you’re not a racist, then they’re not talking about you. It’s not about you. Nobody cares how enlightened you are if you’re not willing to engage others who are not enlightened. Your hurt feelings are completely irrelevant to a discussion about immigrants having their children kicked out of public schools, or black people being executed at barbaric rates, or Chinese launderers being out of work for daring to have yellow skin.
Yeah, okay. This is all pretty anecdotal, right? Maybe I just happen to meet people with an astounding capacity for cognitive dissonance, or maybe, by virtue of our spotty historical education, some people still just think that racism is only a thing that the KKK does. That doesn’t mean that everyone is a closet racist, right? We have a black president, for crying out loud! Racism must be over!
As the kids say: LOL.
Law school, in particular, and professional schools in general, are a great place to be isolated to enjoy your white privilege. UNC School of Law, has a student body that’s about 28% people of color (that’s all people who don’t identify as white, mind you). Duke Law recruits a similar class profile. Down the road at the less-expensive NC Central University, 51% of students are non-white. In other words, at least in the Triangle, schools are almost segregated, and the less well-known and less expensive university is the “black school”.
I’m not going to argue that UNC or Duke actively discriminate against students of color. However, I would like you to take a moment and wonder why such racial stratification occurs. Is it because law school is very expensive, and whites are more likely to be wealthy enough to afford 3 years of tuition? Is it because, as a result of systemic inequality, students from majority-black high schools and colleges are seen as less academically gifted than those from mostly-white schools? Or does that same inequality mean that schools in minority neighborhoods are chronically underfunded and therefore less likely to produce students who are qualified to join the ranks of Duke Law?
You can probably guess that I think the answer to all those questions is “yeah, in part.” Race relations in academia has been a thorny issue since the pre-Bakke days. I certainly can’t provide a comprehensive analysis of race makeup in admissions and subsequent employment in a short blog post, but I can offer what I think the effects of a low-diversity education are. Nobody challenges us white students who are “color blind”. We get to carry on with a group of people who comfortably look like us, and we never have to even question our pre-existing notions unless we actively try through community outreach or pro bono work. And, while many students do try to interact with people outside their comfort zone, this really shouldn’t be optional.
As future lawyers, we are entrusted with the well-being of the future legal system. That’s a legal system that ought to ensure justice for everyone, not regardless of race or socioeconomic status but actively regarding race and socioeconomic status. If we don’t understand people different from ourselves, and if we continue to pretend to be “color-blind” out of convenience, ignorance, and apathy, we will never be able to confront the systemic problems within our society.
Remember, it’s not about you.