With spotlight on education about race, new law course aims to fill gap

5 minute read

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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(Reuters) - Roger Williams University School of Law recently joined a handful of law schools across the country that now require a course focused on the impact of race in the development of American law.

The change at the Bristol, Rhode Island, school comes amid a national uproar over whether, and to what extent, U.S. students should be taught the history and legacy of American slavery and Jim Crow racial segregation, couched as opposition to critical race theory.

In fact, the opposition to teaching critical race theory (CRT) has targeted much more than just the theory itself -- a framework positing that racism is woven into the U.S. legal system and which seeks to analyze political and social life through that lens. Under the guise of opposition to critical race theory, conservative pushback is hitting anti-bias training, diversity and inclusion efforts, and plain old U.S. history syllabi, as Reuters reported June 23.

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It's also been aimed at non-existent race-related instruction. Georgia’s anti-CRT bill, for example, forbids the teaching of the concepts that one race is inherently superior or that individuals are inherently racist by virtue of their own racial identity, neither of which are tenets of critical race theory nor parts of any local curriculum.

The debate is alive in legal academia, too.

A recent American Bar Association proposal to require training law students in bias, racism and “cross-cultural” competency was met with significant resistance, including from professors and former deans of Yale Law School, according to a July 1 article by Law.com.

I asked Gregory Bowman, RWU law dean, and Jared Goldstein, associate dean for academic affairs, about their new course, Race and the Foundations of American Law, in the context of this ongoing debate over race-related education.

The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.

REUTERS: Isn’t it an omission to teach American law without focusing on “a historical overview and a current assessment of how race has played a role in American law,” given how much race has shaped U.S. law?

GOLDSTEIN: Race has always been central to American law. From the Fugitive Slave Clause to the Equal Protection Clause, race has been a focus of constitutional law. From the first Naturalization Act through the Chinese Exclusion Act to today, race has been a focus of immigration law. In perhaps less obvious ways, concerns over race have helped shape practically every area of law, including criminal law, housing law, education law and employment law. To try to teach students American law without addressing race would be like teaching someone to ride a bike without telling them about the pedals.

REUTERS: Your class seems to go further than the ABA proposal (which also suggests lawyers are obligated to promote a non-racist justice system). Do you think the ABA should require instruction in “how race has played a role in American law,” rather than just “cross-cultural competency.”

BOWMAN: Cross-cultural competency is critically important for lawyers, but it’s not the same as learning about longstanding structures and systems in American law that favor some and disenfranchise others. Understanding those systems makes for better-prepared, better-informed advocates. I’m hopeful we will see clear ABA guidance that will help bring about meaningful change nationwide.

REUTERS: The Yale Law professors' argument is strikingly similar to those made by the anti-CRT crowd -- which are apparently based on a misunderstanding of what CRT is. They say a requirement for "cross-cultural competency" relies on a presupposition that some people are inherently racist. They also argued that the ABA proposals go beyond requiring teaching skills, to requiring students to adopt a specific world view. What are your thoughts?

BOWMAN: We need to remember that we're talking about the structural features of a legal system within which we all live. And if the structures of American law are damaging to some because of their race -- and they are -- then that’s a very serious problem. One key place to address this problem is in legal education, where we train the lawyers and leaders of tomorrow. Our position is that our job is to train students to think critically for themselves. But if we train without providing essential information, including the ways in which race has always been central to American law, then their education is incomplete. That would be a serious disservice to our students, and to the communities they will serve.

REUTERS: Why do you think most law schools don’t teach the law, or Con-Law, for example, within a similar framework?

GOLDSTEIN: Many law schools have been recognizing that, by default, the framework they’ve been using focuses on the experiences and perspectives of dominant groups in American life and neglects those of everyone else. While issues of race inevitably come up in all constitutional law courses, this course tries to provide a framework for understanding the role of the law in creating and sustaining racial hierarchies.

REUTERS: Do you expect anything different in your course once it’s a requirement (the class was piloted as an elective last spring)?

GOLDSTEIN: I wouldn’t be surprised if some students initially question why this course is required, in the same way my teenager asks why she needs to learn algebra. Once they take it, however, students should see its importance in understanding the law. Within a few years, I expect it will seem as normal and necessary as other required law school courses, like contracts.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com