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February 16, 2020

70 years after 'Sweatt,' how much progress have African American law students made?

Seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that opened the University of Texas School of Law to black students. In Sweatt v. Painter, the court unanimously ruled that a separate state law school created for African Americans was not equal to the all-white University of Texas and therefore the plaintiff, Heman Marion Sweatt, should be admitted to the university.

The 1950 case had profound repercussions – not just for law students. It was also a harbinger of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling four years later, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine once and for all.

On Feb. 15, a panel of law deans and professors gathered at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas, to discuss the progress of African American students at U.S. law schools since Sweatt. The program, “From Separate but Equal to Affirmative Action: Where Are We 70 Years After Sweatt v. Painter?,” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice as part of the Defending Liberty Pursuing Justice Summit” .

The consensus: While Sweatt succeeded in integrating law schools, the progress of African Americans and other minorities in U.S. law schools has stagnated in recent years.

“The percentage of minority law students – primarily Mexican American and African American law students – tripled from 1971 until 1996,” said Drucilla Ramey, dean emerita at Golden Gate University School of Law. That changed, she said, with “the onslaught of anti-affirmative action initiatives,” starting with California’s Proposition 209 in 1996. Since then, the number of law students of color has changed very slowly.

Today, nearly all minorities are underrepresented in the legal profession. For example, 5% of all lawyers are African American – the same percentage as 10 years ago – but the U.S. population is 13.4% African American. Similarly, 5% of all lawyers are Hispanic – the same as a decade earlier – although the U.S. population is 18.1% Hispanic.

Minority enrollment in law school has risen gradually in recent years. In 2011, 25% of law students were minorities. In 2018, minority enrollment was 31%. Forty years ago, in 1978, minorities occupied just 9% of first-year law school seats. Today, 63% of law students are white, 13% Hispanic, 8% African-American, 6% Asian and 10% race unknown or other.

“The profession is a disaster right now for both Mexican Americans and other Latinx people and for African Americans,” Ramey said. Just 7.6% of all law firm equity partners are minorities, she said. “African Americans are doing incredibly badly in the large law firms that are the catapult to power in this country,” she concluded.

What would it take to change the demographics of U.S. law schools? Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said the simplest change would be if U.S. News & World Report stopped ranking law schools based on the LSAT scores and grade point averages of incoming students.

Currently, Farnsworth said, whenever a law school engages in affirmative action, “it suffers a kind of ranking penalty or pain” in the U.S. News annual reports. That, in turn, creates pressure among alumni and administrators, he said. Removing the LSAT and GPA rankings “would change things pretty considerably… That’s the easiest tweak I can see,” Farnsworth said.

Financial factors are another consideration, panelists agreed. Joan Bullock, dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, said most law school financial aid is based on merit, not need. Students of color tend to have greater financial need and lower LSAT scores, and therefore take on more student loan debt, she said. “Maybe that offers an additional reason you’re not seeing an increase in the African American population applying to law schools,” Bullock said.

Financial factors may also explain another demographic quirk – a gender gap among first-year law students at historically black colleges and universities. Just 25% of those entering students are men, said Alfred D. Mathewson, emeritus professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Ramey speculated that perhaps African American men are skipping law school to enter professions “where they can do better.” Bullock agreed, saying African American men “have to go out and earn a living” and can’t take time away, incur student loan debt and stay in school.

A detailed look at current demographic trends and statistics in law schools and the profession is in the ABA’s 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession. The report will be updated in August.