What CLS Can Learn From Racial Tensions at UCLA Law

ewocOver the last year, UCLA Law has dealt with increasing racial tension, evidenced by a series of escalating conflicts, touched off by a professor’s controversial views on affirmative action and culminating in student-on-student hate speech. Certain stories are hard to verify—such as anecdotal observations that over time the administration essentially segregated the 1L class by refraining from placing students of color in the section taught by that professor, due to years of complaints about his overt antagonism towards students of specific backgrounds. Still, the multiplicity of allegations shows a pervasive institutional failure to achieve a culture of inclusion. UCLA has held mandatory sensitivity trainings for students, yet the administration refrained from addressing the racially-focused nature of students’ hostile comments, a policy that itself has undermined the possibility of real discussion of the situation. Other law schools should see the UCLA example as a reminder of the importance of recognizing these dynamics at an early stage, when productive intervention is still possible.

Does CLS have a civility problem? The answer depends on who you ask. The law school has not been the subject of any sensationalistic Above the Law headlines in the same vein as UCLA, but the abundance of microaggressions students observe inside and outside the classroom suggests that perhaps we need to think more critically about the culture of our own institution. For 1Ls in particular, whose engagement with the school is structured to preclude the exercise of choice and whose observations about law school are typically met with platitudes about the hazing that is 1L, identifying and responding to these microaggressions is  a daunting task. What is the proper response to the male professor who addresses a female student as “little lady” during a cold call, describes another female student’s enthusiastic class participation as “hysterical,” and makes off-hand comments stereotyping people according to ethnicity? The irony of our use of the “Socratic method” as a justification for passive acceptance of raw hierarchy is that many of these comments could be subject to punitive measures if made in an actual courtroom.

Microaggression copy 4Discussions of institutional culture are often derailed by the “a few bad apples” excuse. The inappropriate behavior of a professor at an elite university is deemed their personal quirk; we are told they mean no harm, to see it as endearing. The role of the professor in shaping the standards of school-wide discourse should not be underestimated, as the abundant stories of student-perpetuated microaggressions following improper professor behavior at a school like UCLA demonstrate. Obviously, these issues do not start the moment one steps into the law school, and can represent the accumulated social divisions we have encountered in our lives prior to entering CLS. However, some of the more persistent myths about legal education could aggravate their impact and frequency.  The traditional insistence on legal education as a noble transformation in which allegedly neutral scholars teach us “how to think” by deliberately excluding interdisciplinary perspectives fuels the false impression that the social fabric of this school is somehow independent of the world outside its doors.

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Certain features of the predominant method of legal education that are generally criticized asbeing out of touch with current practice also exacerbate challenges to fostering a truly inclusive culture. The individualistic, isolated character of the typical law student’s coursework, as compared to that of a business student, does little to provide experience for working on a team, which one will actually need to do in most employment contexts. Activities like moot courts and student organizations can supplement these skills, but there are limits to cooperation with those who regard their peers as eternal competitors. The value in these activities is that ideally, they strengthen one’s ability to call on empathy in dealing with a partner or opponent, and at the very least teach us how to act as though we experience that empathy, even when we do not.

As UCLA recently discovered, sweeping a problem under the rug only gives it more time to grow. One of CLS’ strongest qualities is the great number of people in this community who thrive on engagement with new ideas and perspectives beyond their own, who understand that developing the skill to defend an argument requires the strength of character to face challenges to it. Hopefully, the next Dean will pay careful attention to the weaknesses that reveal our potential for growth, and establish concrete policies that mobilize students and faculty alike in pursuit of a more socially conscious and conscientious institutional culture.

See also: My Sassy Black Blog Is Not Enough.

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Graphics by: Yoonji Woo
Illustration by: Minji Reem

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