This is not a perfect guide. That’s ok. Fear of being imperfect is no reason not to write it, just as fear of being imperfect is no reason to avoid taking anti-racist action.
Anti-racism requires work. It requires listening, it requires humility, it requires both learning and unlearning, and it requires discomfort. White supremacy gaslights us into believing that the discomfort of disrupting racist conduct, be it overt or coded, is worse than the conduct itself. In law school, this de facto gag rule on interrupting racism is embedded in classrooms, hallways, exams, and the law itself.
As law students, we are trained to accept racist precedents, not to question them, or illuminate the ways in which they enact injustice. Instead, we must put our heads down, accept the so-called “objectivity” of these laws, and operationalize them as practitioners
Don’t put your head down. It will be ok. You will still pass your class. You will still become a lawyer. Most importantly, you will push the institution, the educators, and your peers to center not just the law, but justice. Here is how:
Listen. Listen to your peers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) when they tell you they are being silenced. Listen when they describe a microaggression. Even if you don’t understand why it was racist, realize that’s the privilege of your position: you haven’t had to feel its impact. Listening will help you see more, which will help you recognize when interruption is needed.
Listening generates understanding that law school culture is not benign, that racism is systemic, and the need for interruption is urgent. Gone unchecked, racism escalates into a white student calling the police on a Black student for being in a study room that she had every right to occupy. Listening helps you understand calls to action and how to support your peers. Follow their lead.
Listening is also a way to check yourself, and recognize whether you are silencing BIPOC voices, or engaging in the acts you wish to disrupt. As Ijeoma Ulou, the author of So You Want to Talk About Race, wrote, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
Speaking up is not antithetical to listening. Speaking up is required for disrupting racism. It’s ok to say a legal decision is wrong, and for racism to be the reason it was wrong. It’s reason enough. If your professor or peers challenge you to back up your assertion that racism is an illegitimate premise for legal decision-making, they are only exposing their own racism.
The same goes for hypos, which are too often steeped in racist stereotypes. Speak up. Done perfectly or not, it must be done. As a white student, take on the labor of intervening, because as uncomfortable as it is for you, imagine the work of having to process the racism that is being directed against you and your loved ones, and simultaneously needing to speak out against it.
Contextualize the Law
The law is one of the most dressed up tools of white supremacy. Its racist roots are embedded in our Constitution, which codified the dehumanization of the Black community and sought to erase the Indigenous community. These roots are not eradicated. This is evident as we reckon with mass incarceration, segregated schools, police brutality, gentrification, disregard for tribal sovereignty, xenophobic immigration laws, environmental racism, and the list goes on.
Don’t let professors convince you that illuminating injustice is an emotional or “policy” argument, and that re-stating the law is the only valid legal argument. That is one of the other lies of white supremacy: that the laws that support, protect, and flow from it are neutral. They are not. The law is made by humans – mostly older, white, cisgender, male humans. They have their own interests to protect, and our laws reflect that:
Property law emerged from Johnson v. M’Intosh and the violent exclusion of Indigenous people from their land. The Indigenous couple in State v. Williams was battling a cultural genocide enacted by child welfare agencies. Bernhard Goetz in People v. Goetz shot a group of Black youth amid the catastrophic War on Drugs, which demonized Black children as “superpredators,” and propelled racist legislation that decimated Black communities and our country with mass incarceration. History repeats itself, as families are separated and caged at the US-Mexico border in the shadow of Korematsu v. United States.
Ground your learning in the current context as well. If you’re taking Criminal Procedure as another police officer has avoided prosecution for murdering a Black person, ask your professor to explain prosecutorial discretion. You are learning to be a lawyer, and part of that learning is understanding how the law operates in reality, not just how the rules look on paper.
Context illuminates the true reasoning behind the stated reasoning. It demolishes the lie that the law is neutral. It sharpens your critical thinking skills, and whittles your arguments outside of the vacuum of precedent. It centers justice, and interrupts injustice.
If you are a member of a well-capitalized student group, give material support to BIPOC-led groups and affinity groups. Co-sponsor events and avoid conflicting events. Use your platform to amplify BIPOC-led events and speakers, and center those voices in your groups and events. Ask how you can be most helpful, and follow their lead.
Learn which actions BIPOC students are calling for across campuses. Amplify those demands. Link up with student movements urging schools to hire diverse, tenure-track faculty, to divest from prisons, and to disarm campus police. Take on the gruntwork if you can. Print the copies, put up the flyers. While we all have a deep personal stake in dismantling white supremacy, white privilege shields us from the exhaustion of fighting for our lives in these movements. Let’s use some of that reserve energy to fill in the logistical gaps.
Don’t forget about non-student groups, and organizations off-campus. See if there is solidarity work supporting on-campus maintenance staff, or connect to racial justice movements that are happening in the city surrounding your school. What happens in law school is both impacted by and reflective of the current moment, so remember to engage.
Anti-racism is a constant learning process that will continue throughout our lifetimes. Keep educating yourself. If you are very new to this, you can start with a foundational article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh. Other reads include How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and the aforementioned So You Want to Talk About Race.
There are widely circulated anti-racism resource kits, as well as anti-racist organizing groups, like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Find your local SURJ chapter, if you have one, and don’t go on this journey alone. It’s important to be accountable in your anti-racist practice. Joining a group that works in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other organizations is a way to do that. You will also have a community that is supportive, educational, and gives you space to be clumsy in your learning process without doing harm.
Organize Other White Students
White people organizing white people in anti-racist work has been a longstanding call of Black-led liberation movements in particular, and has gone largely unheeded. It cannot be incumbent on communities of color to educate and mobilize white people. It is our work to absorb the backlash of our white friends and family, and to call in people who want to do better. Again, this is where linking up with organizations, mentors, and communities that already do this work can be helpful.
Law school culture demands that we go to class already knowing the answers, that we speak with authority regardless of our understanding, and that we never risk being wrong. Anti-racism invites the opposite – show up ready to listen and learn, show up with humility and without defensiveness and show up as you are. It’s never too late, and if you’re ready to start doing this important work, then you’ve shown up right on time.
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