Are we REALLY talking about race in law schools?

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Written by Jeannine Bell

In an earlier blog, I complained that we never talk about class in law schools and compared the prevalence of talk about race to talk about class. While it’s true that race is discussed much more than class, I’d liked to focus briefly on how we talk about race and suggest that our discussions of race both inside the legal academy and outside are severely limited.  In a Black history month speech in 2009, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder complained that in things racial, Americans “have always been, and continue to be, essentially a nation of cowards.” Holder was commenting on the discrepancy between the prevalence of race in our political discussions in its absence in the everyday conversations of the average American.  He attributed our failure to talk about race to lack of comfort, and to some extent the nation’s history.

Though I know most of us would like to think of ourselves as being much more “open” than the rest of the country, it’s not clear to me that we’re doing much better at talking about race in law schools.  Yes, in Con Law, and other related courses, we discuss a limited spectrum of so-called race cases (i.e. affirmative-action, racial profiling and other cases where even the deciding court uses the word “race”).   In addition, if there is some high-profile racially-tinged incident in the news — a hate crime, the killing of an unarmed black person by the police, or heaven forbid, some student party where invitees are encouraged to show up in racially offensive costumes, if we are lucky, faculty might discuss it amongst ourselves.  You may think it strange that I wrote, “…if we are lucky.”  I mean this quite seriously.  I know that such discussions about race can be awkward and uncomfortable, but my thinking about this is in line with Eric Holder’s.   In his speech for Black history month, Holder suggested that racial progress is linked to the ability to have frank conversations about racial matters. The far greater danger I believe is in not taking risks, not talking, and ultimately not getting to know each other.