December 14, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Law Schools Push to Require Anti-Racism Training and Courses

by Keeshea Turner Roberts
To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.

James Baldwin

I entered my second year of teaching in the Fair Housing Clinic at Howard University School of Law during the summer of 2020. As I prepared my lesson plans for the upcoming year, the world outside of my classroom fell apart. The high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery rocked the nation. From large metropolitan cities to the smallest hamlets, thousands of people—white, African American, and other people of color—took to the streets, protesting overt racial discrimination, inequity, and violence perpetrated against African Americans by the police.

As these events unfolded, I wondered what I could do as a practitioner and clinician to incorporate discussions about race, injustice, and poverty in my lesson plans for the year. To be perfectly honest, I struggled with how to best talk about the intersection of race and poverty in the area of housing justice considering current realities. How much should I discuss race in my lectures? How do I set proper boundaries to ensure a meaningful exchange of ideas among my students? How do I frame the discussion about overt and covert discrimination in ways that illustrate some of the barriers that our clients, who are mostly African American, face in their day-to-day lives? What do I want my students to learn and hopefully apply in their individual practices both now and in the future?

One would think that in teaching at one of the nation’s few historically Black law schools, discussions about racism and discrimination naturally flow from our curriculum. This is not the case. Criminal procedure and critical race theory classes are the exceptions to the absence of racial discussions. We must make conscious efforts to include these kinds of discussions in other courses, such as family, property, or contract law. These conversations enrich our students’ understanding about how law is made as well as the positive and negative impacts of overt and covert discriminatory policies in the lives of their family, friends, and neighbors.

In the Fair Housing Clinic, we cannot discuss our cases without recognizing the role that racial discrimination and segregation plays in creating the current housing inequalities in the District of Columbia. African American families face significant barriers in finding safe and affordable housing. In fact, many of D.C.’s extremely low-income renters residing east of the Anacostia River pay more than 50 percent of their incomes to rent and utilities. Claire Zippel, A Broken Foundation: Affordable Housing Crisis Threatens D.C.’s Lowest-Income Residents (Dec. 8, 2018). Policies such as restrictive covenants, “steering” potential buyers from Black neighborhoods, and racial discrimination by mortgage lenders prevent many families from obtaining affordable housing. Although these policies are now illegal for the most part, barriers continue to exist, such as restrictive zoning laws that prevent the construction of multifamily units in affluent neighborhoods. Further, the District of Columbia is one of the fastest gentrifying areas in the nation. Many of our clients and other D.C. residents are displaced and forced out of the D.C. metropolitan area due to their inability to find affordable housing. We must talk about these policies and the reasoning behind them in addition to the applicable statute or code so my students can best determine how to advocate effectively on their behalf.

Civil Rights March in 1963.

Civil Rights March in 1963.

FREEPIK / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Law schools nationwide began to look inward to determine how they can address systemic racism in their institutions as well as in the legal profession overall. In fact, 150 deans of law schools petitioned the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to consider requiring every accredited law school to provide anti-racism training and education. Alicia Outllette et al., Letter to the Members of the American Bar Association, Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (Aug. 20, 2020). In their letter, the deans state that “such [lawyering] skills are essential parts of professional competence, legal practice, and being a lawyer.” Id. Thus, these deans view studying or receiving training about bias, cultural competency, and anti-racism as adding value to a student’s law school experience and beyond.

Debates ensued among faculty and students regarding whether the training proposed in the deans’ letter to the ABA are necessary and whether they create unintended consequences, such as possible racist environments, in our law schools and ultimately in the legal profession. Opponents of these trainings and classes argue that “training law students in ‘bias’ or ‘anti-racism’ might amount to ideological indoctrination.” Hans Bader, Law School Deans Asks for Mandatory Anti-Racism Training (Aug. 10, 2020). Some are of the opinion that many bias claims are “baseless and ideologically-motivated.” Id. Additionally, some argue that “a student trained in “anti-racism” could make a student a worse lawyer rather than promote “professional competence.” Id. at p. 2. Law schools teach students how to analyze court rulings to learn important legal principles. A student trained in anti-racism might reach conclusions that contradict judicial decisions. Finally, it is the belief of some professors that the lack of any bias, cultural competency, or anti-racism training did not affect their ability to represent their clients, white or Black.

Notwithstanding the law school deans’ call for mandatory classes and training about bias, cultural competency, and anti-racism, many institutions are addressing the issues of systemic racism and police violence against African Americans in other ways. Many law schools, such as the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, issued powerful statements condemning the rise in racial injustice. In his May 31, 2020, statement to the law school community, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky stated, “[o]ur knowledge, our tools, and our privilege impose on us an obligation to study and learn . . . also to act.” Karen Sloan, Law Schools Have an ‘Obligation’ to Help End Racism and Injustice, Deans Argue (June 2, 2020). Several law schools participated in a “teach-in” to address racial injustice and policing. Law professors, faculty, staff, law students, and the community participated in sessions dealing with a variety of topics. For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the University of Miami School of Law convened online “teach-ins” on topics such as “Racist Police Brutality and the Role of Law, Lawyers, and Law Enforcement in the Problems and its Solutions.” Robert C. Jones, Teach-in Addresses Police Practices in the Wake of George Floyd’s Death (June 3, 2020).

As a practitioner and clinician, I believe that law schools are moving in the right direction by including discussions about race and racial injustice in their curriculums and in legal communities. Other entities, such as corporations and professional sports teams, have faced pressures, both private and public, to oppose all forms of racism and racial injustice. Why shouldn’t law schools also commit to opposing racism? The law has always been used to further the interests of the powerful. In fact, “race was explicit in our legal system; it dictated who could be a citizen, who had a right to contract or be protected by laws, and who had the right to vote.” Eric C. Lain, Racialized Interactions in the Law School Classroom: Pedagogical Approaches to Creating a Safe Learning Environment, 67 J. Legal Ed. 780 (2018). How can we continue to teach this kind of colorblind law to our students when clearly race matters?

One challenge that law professors face is how to address these hot-button issues while teaching students how to brief cases or articulate a well-reasoned argument. Most professors have some control of what and how we teach a course. Professors must find value in addressing race and incorporate these dialogues beyond a brief discussion in a constitutional law, criminal procedure, or critical race theory class.

Another challenge that law professors face is how to discuss these issues in a safe and productive way. The issue of race is not an easy one to discuss. Most of us tend to avoid discussing the roots of racism in the United States because it takes us to a place where we do not want to go. Since we were young, we all have been taught that the United States is the best country in the world. We are taught that racism is a thing of the past and that we are now in a post-racial society, as evident by the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States. Indeed, Obama’s reelection in 2012 seemed to affirm this belief. So, how do you have these difficult conversations? Law students must not only feel physically safe but also emotionally and psychologically safe in these conversations. When a student is psychologically safe, he or she feels that one’s “identity, perspectives, and contributions are valuable.” Thus, he or she would be able to learn without feeling vulnerable.

Although the conversation is not an easy one to have, I believe that it is a necessary one. We all must pull racism by the roots and expose it to light. The only way to expose racism, both overt and covert, is by having those difficult conversations.

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Keeshea Turner Roberts

Adjunct Clinical Law Professor and Supervising Attorney, Howard University School of Law Fair Housing Clinic

Keeshea Turner Roberts is an adjunct clinical law professor and supervising attorney in Howard University School of Law’s Fair Housing Clinic. Prior to teaching at Howard, she taught and supervised law students for Rising for Justice, formerly D.C. Law Students in Court, and has spent most of her legal career as a public interest lawyer.