Affirmative Action, Education / Schools, Law Professors, Law School Deans, Law Schools, Minority Issues, Politics, Racism

On Racism At UCLA Law And False Dichotomies

A few days ago, Elie Mystal wrote about recent allegations of racist student conduct at the UCLA School of Law. I invite readers unfamiliar with the background to catch up by reading Elie’s post and, if you’ve the stomach for it, some of the many comments on his post. (It’s okay. I’ll wait.)

UCLA Dean Rachel Moran called for a police investigation. She alerted the student body. She agreed to meet with student leaders. From all I can see, the law school administration has so far handled the events appropriately. The official response balances the risk of dismissing the allegations or their importance with the risk of over-reacting and potentially polarizing the campus further.

I disagree with much of Elie’s criticism of the law school as a whole, as I disagreed with him about the Team Sanders situation at UCLA last fall.

Still, I didn’t originally want to write about UCLA this week. I drafted a post on another topic, in fact. But something about the UCLA situation, Elie’s post, and, perhaps most of all, the responses from many readers gnawed away at me. It hurt my heart. And when the desiccated husk that passes for my world-weary heart hurts, there’s usually something to it . . . .

First, many of the reader responses to the UCLA incidents focus on affirmative action in law school admissions policies. That issue is certainly a part of the picture painted by the students in their video response titled simply “33,” referring to the number of African American students currently enrolled at UCLA Law. Responding only to that one issue, as so many comments did, seems bafflingly myopic to me, though. I ask you, readers, was that all you heard the black students in the video saying?

I heard a lot more.

I heard men and women candidly describing their own experiences. I heard a lot of hurt and stress and tangled emotions. I heard people struggling to articulate something that’s hard to articulate.

That’s something to take seriously. Not only if you yourself are black. Not only if you are politically liberal. Taking seriously another human being sharing a complicated picture of what goes on in her head is worth doing because that’s how human beings should try to relate to each other.

That’s not a matter of politics. That’s a matter of simple kindness. That’s a matter of having the basic humility to acknowledge that other people have lived different lives than you. Just as your particular experiences inform your current point of view, so do theirs. Just as you hope to be taken seriously, so do they.

You can reject affirmative action on constitutional grounds, or because you think that, even if constitutional, such policies are unfair. You can oppose affirmative action because you believe that it harms black students in the long run. I’ve written about my opposition to race-based admissions policies and my support for holistic and alternative admissions. You can voice these views and still care deeply about social justice. You can be outspoken about these things and still care a whole hell of a lot about what black students at a majority-white law school think about their time on campus and whether they thrive. At the very least, you can listen.

There is a difference between opposing race-based policies at state-funded institutions on constitutional grounds and simply not giving a sh*t what black students feel. We do know that, right? Because, when I read many of the responses to Elie’s post, I really started to question how widely shared that understanding is. Sadly, many of the commenters seem to hide their inclination to do the latter behind their arguments for the former.

Furthermore, while affirmative action may be a hot-button issue, discussion of it should not drown out other substantive conversations. There’s more to talk about when it comes to race on campus than just preferences in admissions. I was disappointed to read so many comments that ignored other issues.

The Black Law Students Association at UCLA drafted a petition setting forth their concerns and proposed remedies. They include, for example, a request for additional academic support services. Whether you agree with the proposals or not, there’s a comprehensive discussion to be had that extends well beyond the single issue of admissions.

If, as so many commenters suggest, BLSA members at UCLA tore down their own posters and planted the racist note in Alexis Gardner’s locker, may God (and not Dean Moran) have mercy on their souls. I’m not callow enough to deny the possibility of that sort of scheming to achieve a political end. (The internet has been awash in similar stories, such as the lesbian waitress who lied about a homophobic comment written on a customer receipt.) But should we really assume that’s the case? What sort of perverse presumption is that? All allegations of racial intimidation are presumed fraudulent until proven otherwise?

Finally, I worry that some of us are so intent on opposing a constitutionally ambiguous institutional obligation like affirmative action that we’ve lost sight of our own personal moral responses to situations like this.

Even if the students’ statements here require no institutional response whatsoever — no changes in admissions procedures, no hiring of a new assistant dean to oversee diversity, etc. — that does not rule out our individual empathy. What is so audacious about simply caring about what the person sitting next to you in class is experiencing? Allowing them a forum and trying in good faith to understand their position does not obligate you to do anything necessarily. It’s not a promise to agree. We don’t admit our guilt by caring.

Reflexively shutting down all conversation of race or dismissing expressions of what it feels like for people to live as minorities in majority-white settings doesn’t make you a good conservative. It just makes you an *sshole.

I am a politically conservative white woman who writes publicly about being politically conservative. I work at, and graduated from, a historically black law school. I am passionate about and committed to my school, in a way that most ATL readers will never understand. I know what it feels like to be different on several levels from many people around me. I do not doubt that I am a better person because of these experiences, and I consider that one of the great gifts of being a part of my particular law school community. I drew that conclusion myself, however. No one else can dictate to me what my subjective experiences are like or determine for me whether they are valid.

Do I know what it feels like to be a black student at UCLA Law? Absolutely not, but I’m willing to shut up and listen to those who do. I hope they’d do the same for me.

What a shame to see so many people respond to this controversy as though they’ve chosen politics over respect and empathy for others. I believe in the mutually beneficial, profoundly transformative power of racial, ethnic, gender, and intellectual diversity. My personal experiences inform this view, and my daily choices about where and with whom I work reflect this view. My appreciation for diversity does not conflict with my conservative politics or legal philosophy. I don’t choose between the two, and no one else should either.

Earlier: Racism Abounds At UCLA School of Law
Racists’ T-Shirts On Campus? Only If You Bother To Think About It
Are You On Team Sander?


Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at tabo.atl@gmail.com

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