My law school experience has shaped my worldview and challenged me internally on what kind of lawyer I want to become. It has also reaffirmed my commitment to racial justice. In particular, what has stuck out to me is discussions of how race influences the law and how lawyers are trained to understand race in the law.
Coming to the University of Minnesota Law School, I had previous work experience and other post-graduate training in which there was always some training around race. In my prior work experiences and graduate school experiences, I was one of a few Black faces. I experienced numerous micro-aggressions and had to find different ways to cope with these systems.
These experiences influenced my decision to go to law school and become an attorney. I was expecting race to be a large contributing factor in how the law is shaped. Particularly since racial discrepancies have been well documented throughout history. However, once I began law school, I began to see how the law and even how we train lawyers can be misguided. It is clear, how law students are trained helps contribute to these systems that continue to perpetuate racism. I found this quite disheartening.
For example, throughout many of my first-year courses upon review of cases with clear racial undertones, the racial undertones are often overlooked and ignored. Yet, the onus was put on a student of color to possibly speak to this issue. While this varied based on the professor, it was either encouraged or discouraged.
I specifically recall an instance in Constitutional Law when we covered the Korematsu case. While the purpose was to discuss “War Powers,” there was clear racial reasoning for actions being taken against Japanese citizens that was clearly ignored. When this point was brought forward, it was pushed to the side as the professor wanted to focus more on the War Powers doctrine. This signaled to the rest of the class that the clear racial issues were less important. Further, this serves as a launching pad for ignoring other racial issues that may be present in the law and later contributes to lawyers failing to recognize racism in the law.
This is one of many examples throughout my law school experience in which legal training allows for unchecked racism to continue in the law by outright ignoring it. Another example of this occurred when discussing the commerce clause and the Heart of Atlanta Motel case. This case analyzes Congress’ power to enforce anti-discrimination on hotels and restaurants due to the impact on interstate commerce. The point of the case was to show Congress’ expansive regulatory power through the commerce clause. Sadly, when a student asks the important question of why the court refuses to address racial discrimination, once again it is pushed to the side as a secondary concern.
These are two examples where racism in the law is either ignored or diminished. It may be that the professor wishes to avoid sowing conflict within the classroom or feels unable to navigate those conversations. However, this clearly creates other issues both within and outside the classroom, and frequently it is the students of color that feel the brunt of these effects.
For instance, this past semester a source of a lot of controversy in the law school was when a group of white law students began analogizing not being able to bring a plus one to the school fall formal to “separate and unequal” which is problematic for a whole host of reasons. While many of the student groups were quick to speak out and call for an apology, the immediate harm was already done, and students who come from people who were subjected to systemic racism and discrimination may feel as though their struggle is being diminished by the students making certain comparisons.
There are a variety of resources in law school and there are professors who make a conscious effort to address racism within the law school and broader law. In Criminal Law, my professor made a point to ground us in the subject matter by addressing mass incarceration and articulating the policy impacts it has on society as a whole while also discussing the clear racial discrepancies our criminal justice upholds. This is an example of a classroom experience that all law students will experience and does not necessarily have to be a specific class focused on race within the law where often the students taking the course may already have an interest in the subject matter.
Additionally, the University of Minnesota Law School has programs such as Race Informed Student Experience (RISE) a student-led experiential learning program to help and guide first-year law students to explore race and class within the law. RISE serves an important purpose because it fosters conversations about race within the law that may not otherwise happen. Additionally, there is the Racial Justice Equity Milestone program that allows students to explore the intersections between race and the law. This course is mandatory for students to complete the first three modules during orientation.
If we can continue to build on these programs, I think that law school can be a much more inclusive environment and we will train a more diverse, well-rounded generation of lawyers. Finally, having law schools partner with various affinity bar organizations such as the nesota Association of Black Lawyers, the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association, the Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association in addition to many others, will go a long way in supporting our students of color. Students should not be forced to seek out these organizations on their own, they should be made aware of the existence of these groups.
In conclusion, the law school experience is still tainted with an experience that largely seeks to diminish the existence of racism within the law. As law schools seek to implement programs that introduce this topic, there is still more work to be done.