The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade brought long overdue conversations about anti-Black racism—and police brutality against Black communities—into the mainstream.
But at the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, it took hundreds of emails from students and alumni before Deans Mark West and Kim Yuracko would publicly state “Black Lives Matter.” Their failure to center the needs of Black students specifically, and students of color more generally, is not surprising. It is representative of our entire experience in law school. It would be dangerous to characterize their failures as a one-off mistake.
This was the final straw for all of us. Individually, we took to Twitter as a last-ditch effort to be heard. In the process, we found a community and a movement. As the leaders behind #MLawLoud and #NLawIndifference, we stand on the shoulders of giants; the law students of color who fought to make law school and the legal world a better place for us. Like those students, we have been actively engaged in fighting for greater representation and inclusivity in our schools. We have fought for town halls and meetings with our deans to address the lack of BIPOC faculty, the absence of a critical race theory curriculum, and the general day-to-day racism we face from our peers, professors, and administrators. But our schools wait us out until we graduate, proposing meeting after meeting and making no real promises to change.
The same people we are petitioning for institutional equity are the gatekeepers of our educational opportunities. As much as we want to push harder for change for those who come after us, we watch our words to avoid alienating the offices that are entrusted with the power to select students for prestigious opportunities.
But the silencing goes even deeper. As women of color, we learned early on, both in law school and in life, that it is dangerous for those with marginalized identities to speak out. Our law schools pride themselves on being spaces for academic debate and disagreement, but our humanity should not be up for debate. In our experiences, professors and administrators exploit “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” to mask a persistent indifference to racism.
The irony here is that law schools actively ignore the many ways in which racism silences students of color. They actively perpetuate that silence by reminding us when we do speak out that we are lucky to be in these prestigious institutions at all.
We broke our silence because it has contributed to the lack of meaningful progress in dismantling racism in our schools. We have consistently provided our schools with roadmaps for creating change, but they dismiss us with superficial solutions, like creating scholarships for students “committed to racial justice work” or pointing to clinical work addressing racial injustice outside of the law school, instead. What problem does a scholarship for people “committed to racial justice work” solve if, assuming it is even awarded to a student of color, that student must endure racism to receive their promised prize?
These surface solutions distort the deep structural issues and maintain the status quo. As women of color, we are tired of our schools paying lip service to diversity and inclusion but being complicit in institutional racism.
The conversation this month may have been sparked by our deans’ failure to speak out, but the blame is not theirs alone. Administrators and faculty must recognize their role in harming BIPOC students, professors, and staff. They must understand that studying racial bias, litigating civil rights cases, or generally having “good intentions” does not prevent them from being racist. They must say, without pause and fear of repercussions, that Black Lives Matter. Then, they must prove it.
Meaningful action must follow. Financially invest in Black students. Pay for ongoing student labor. Actively seek out mentees so that your BIPOC colleagues are not buried by the insurmountable and unrewarded task of uplifting an entire community. Stop relying on your BIPOC students to facilitate conversations about race. Know and understand that racism goes beyond Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. Call out the ways in which the law has been used to legalize oppression, and not just in the expected classes. Diversify your curricula in contracts and tax. Listen to the Black Law Students Associations across the country who have spoken out against your complacency and implement their demands.
The legal profession has historically worked to keep Black women and other women of color like us out. But we are here anyway. We are not going anywhere. We have made it this far because of the women of color, and particularly Black women, who came before us to shatter glass ceilings and pull us up. We are grateful for the opportunities that women like Charlotte E. Ray, Pauli Murray, and Constance Baker Motley have created for us, but the burden should never have been theirs alone.
It is past time for the institutions that feature us in their diversity brochures to truly support us. Administrators and tenured faculty members can no longer absolve themselves of their role in perpetuating white supremacy. As protests continue and Americans around the country lose faith in legal institutions, stability and the rule of law depend on legal scholars and practitioners who are equipped to call out injustice. It is time for our institutions to step up and be equal partners in the fight against racism. The legitimacy of the legal profession depends on it.