Lessons from Critical Race Theory for the Experiential (R)evolution

Robin Walker Sterling

In Assessing the Experiential (R)evolution, new experiential learning directors Allison Korn and Laila Hass conclude that law schools should “define the boundaries of experiential dean and director roles,” and provide faculty members in those roles appropriate administrative and other support; “implement sustainable practices to expand and support experiential faculty, with a focus on including and valuing underrepresented clinicians of color,” and “develop practices to ensure rigor in the process for approving and assessing experiential coursese while appropriately allocating resources to courses and programs.” The authors based their comprehensive recommendations on survey responses from 126 law schools received in the fall and winter of 2018.

Since then, our country has faced both an unprecedented health crisis and protests stemming from long-simmering social unrest. We have been caught in the pincer grip of two widespread pandemics, one old and one new. The novel coronavirus has upended our lives, exploiting fault lines of marginalization to disproportionately affect the communities that many law school experiential programs serve. To date, even as the new presidential administration rushes to deliver doses of the vaccine to vulnerable populations, there are 26.9 million cases of covid-19 in the United States, and more than 460,000 people have died. Communities of color have disproportionately borne the brunt of the virus’s effects. According to the Washington Post, even after controlling for age, sex, and mortality rates over time, Black Americans were 37 percent more likely to die of the virus than whites; Asian Americans were 53 percent more likely; Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were 26 percent more likely; and Hispanics were 16 percent more likely to die than whites.

At the same time, the decades-old systemic racism embedded in policing reached a tipping point, leading to uprisings, protests, and calls for change around the world. On the heels of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, unarmed and jogging in Georgia, and of Breonna Taylor, unarmed and asleep in her own home in Kentucky, the suffocation death of George Floyd on a city street in Minneapolis led to the longest and largest period of protests for civil rights in the United States since the 1960s. On one day during the months of protests, June 6, over half a million people protested in nearly 550 places across the United States. The protests have led to significant changes. The Minneapolis City Council promised to dismantle its police department. New York legislators repealed a law that kept police disciplinary records confidential. Jurisdictions across the county banned chokeholds. Colorado disallowed qualified immunity for police in certain situations. Perhaps as importantly, the pendulum has shifted in the public’s acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement, with support increasing in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder as much as it had in the last two years. In his inaugural address, President Biden listed “a cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making,” along with the coronavirus, the economy, the threat of white supremacy, and climate change as the defining challenges of our time.

As the clinical legal education community undertakes the critical assessment that the authors urge, it might do well for us to strategize around achieving these gains using tenets of critical race theory. Some of the foundational tenets of criminal race theory include: questioning the idea of “meritocracy” and the assumption that standards of “merit” can be neutral under current social conditions; emphasizing taking action to make real change in the world; and understanding that power works hegemonically. All of these are consonant with some of the cornerstone principles of clinical legal education. In particular, Derrick Bell’s theory on interest convergence might be instructive. Professor Bell developed his ground-breaking theory in the context of civil rights, when he argued that the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited de jure segregation of public schools, came about because such a ruling benefitted white people. Professor Bell argued that the Brown decision: soothed the anger and potential of political protests Black veterans, who had served their country in World War II only to return home to continued discrimination; advanced American Cold War objectives by making the United States seem more reasonable than Russia to third world countries; and facilitated desegregation, which was now seen as economically advantageous to the South. As Professor Bell (1980) put it, “the interests of Blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of Whites.”

This principle, broadened and restated as the premise that the interests of a more marginalized group will gain traction only when they coincide with the interests of the dominant group, might be applied to the situation of clinical legal education relative to traditional legal academia. If we applied this principle, then goals like educating members of traditional legal academia about the important contributions of clinical legal education, or appealing to traditional legal academia’s sense of unfairness become less important. Instead, our strategy becomes one of figuring out how to recast the academic and administrative gains we are seeking as aligned with the interests of non-clinical legal academia. That is a much larger topic than can be accommodated in this short blog post. But, in the same way that the zeitgeist of the protests of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement created an atmosphere ready for change, these recent protests have done the same. This article, with its comprehensive questions and recommendations, helps clinical legal academia make the most of this moment.

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