Race Ought to Be A Through-Line in Core Law School Curriculum

Darcy Meals, Assistant Director, Center for Access to Justice, Georgia State University College of Law

Long before law school we are taught that, as is engraved in the Supreme Court’s edifice, we are all entitled to “equal justice under law.” It is one of the fundamental ideals of the American legal system. And yet, it so often remains just that: an ideal to which we aspire but at which we have yet to arrive.

More than falling short of a collective goal, however, our nation’s history is replete with examples of racial injustice written into and undergirded by law: federally sanctioned redlining, internment of Japanese Americans, the failure to prosecute or convict police officers for killing Black people at rates three times their white counterparts. These more modern examples stem directly from the “manifest destiny” of our country’s founding and the early establishment of property law principles built on the commodification of Black bodies and seeking to justify taking land from indigenous peoples.

Despite the many overt examples, historical and current, of the ways in which race shapes our legal system, law faculty are often race-avoidant in teaching would-be lawyers. Race may be relegated to a “law and” discussion in upper-level seminars or covered only in reviewing seminal cases like Brown v. Board of Education. But its influence cannot be limited to one course or doctrinal area. Racial bias informs definitions of reasonableness and credible threat, shapes our views of what constitutes intentional infliction of emotional distress, and influences criminal sentencing and civil recovery. Stated or not, the influence of systemic racism pervades the law school curriculum because it permeates the entirety of the American legal system.

When race is absent from class discussions, that silence sends the message that the law is neutral and operates equally for all, when that is not the lived experience for so many. When we fail to incorporate issues of race and racism as foundational in core law school courses, we impede the professional development of future lawyers, who graduate without grappling with difficult but essential questions of how the law can operate to subordinate on the basis of race (and gender, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, and ability – and the important intersections of those identities). Our silence about how race informs law and its application does real damage to students and can be particularly alienating – and intellectually violent – for students of color.

To encourage increased engagement with the ways in which race and racism undergird the American legal system, the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University College of Law compiled a Racial Justice Resource List. The non-exhaustive list, which will be updated as suggestions come in, is intended for law faculty teaching core (1L) courses who want to include assignments, readings, and discussion on issues of race. The list includes books, book chapters, law review articles, and multi-media for use in teaching how race influences law across the required curriculum. Where possible, the titles are linked to open-access sources. The resource list also provides suggested language regarding classroom expectations and learning objectives and considerations for how to amplify voices and stories that may not have been central in 1L syllabi.

Incorporating race into class assignments or discussions will likely lead to difficult, and even uncomfortable, conversations. Legal academia reflects the inequality otherwise manifest in the legal system: very few tenured law professors are Black. For white faculty, talking about race may run directly counter to the color blindness once expressly taught as virtuous. Leading a discussion, in a public setting, on a topic that has not been part of one’s scholarly expertise – and may not even feel a part of one’s personal experience – may lead to uncomfortable moments. But the work of antiracism requires that we give ourselves and our students the space to have brave and respectful discussions, to ask questions that will increase awareness of bias and how it manifests in the law.

Antiracism ought to inform every facet of legal education – hiring, promotion and tenure, admission, graduation – and it ought to be a through-line in the core law school curriculum. When it isn’t, we risk graduating lawyers who do not understand the origins of the law or its potential impact on clients, we perpetuate systems of inequality as if they were inevitable and deserving of maintenance, and we do a disservice to our students and to the profession, all the while undermining the commitment to equality we so proudly etched in stone.

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