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Race, Gender, Class: A Handful Worth Holding

Thought leaders bring wisdom to conversation on critical perspectives in law and professional identity.

Photograph by Vicki Sanders

A new BC Law 1L course focused on the intersection of law and race, gender, power and class began in earnest and in person September 9 with a provocative keynote conversation among first-year students and two of the nation’s leading authorities in the field.

The event, featuring Northeastern law and humanities professor Patricia J. Williams and UC Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges (above) speaking remotely on video screens, set in motion what BC Law anticipates will be a precedent-setting conversation within the Law School community, a course that faculty and student leaders have titled Critical Perspectives in Law and Professional Identity.

The speakers answered students’ questions and set the tone for a new era of learning that incorporates topics such as intersectionality, criminalization, power and family, and race and lawyering.

Indigo Harris, a 3L, served as moderator and began by asking the speakers what experiences led them to the legal academy.

Their journeys were both different and alike. Bridges explained that she was the first in her family to study law, while Williams discussed coming from a family of lawyers. Where their stories came together was in the questions and concerns that drove them to study the law.

“The questions that brought me to law school—questions about race, gender, and class—those questions just weren’t asked in the first-year curriculum,” said Bridges. “I spent the entire nine months of my first year of law school not talking about the things that I felt were crucial to understanding why our society looks the way it looks.”

Williams observed how much the law school experience has changed for women and people of color since her time as a student in the mid-1970s and as a young professor in the 1980s. In her 1975 graduating class of 536, there were 81 women and 25 people of color. When she started teaching in 1980, she was one of six women of color teaching law in the entire United States. “In that sense, the world has changed a great deal,” said Williams.

When the students began asking questions, the conversation shifted to issues of improving curriculum and society as a whole.

On the subject of races and why the nation remains divided, Williams brought up the role of structural ignorance, specifically a misunderstanding of history and why that continues to hold us back. “I have grown up African American in a world where if it doesn’t have structural racism—however vexed that word has become—it has a level of structural ignorance as a product of a system of segregation in which we do not know how each other lives, and what history represents is hidden from each other,” Williams explained.

She alluded to the commonly used “culture wars” and then offered “difference of understanding” as a more appropriate term for misunderstanding. “We need to put our experiences together,” she said. “We need to be informed of the history.”

Moderator Harris presented a quote by feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde—“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—when asking the speakers if it is possible to work within the institution of law school toward a fundamental reform of that institution.

“It’s a poetic image, but I have not been in this profession for 40 years simply to dismantle the law; that feels over-broad,” Williams replied. “I do think that this planet is at its most dire moment in human history, and we have to learn to talk to each other differently.”

Bridges suggested that instead of approaching the problems within our legal institutions with thoughts of destruction or dismantling, society needs to approach issues with a mindset centered around reorganizing.

“Can we reorganize law school and the law with the law? I don’t think we have a choice,” said Bridges. “I do what I do because I am optimistic about using the law to create a world that is more life affirming for marginalized people and everyone else. I think that turning away from the law would be to abandon a tool that is likely to be necessary in this program of reorganization that we are all engaged in.”

Other topics of discussion centered around ways in which students can attack issues of race and class and ways in which society can continue to improve on issues of inequality.

“The internet has exhausted all of us because everything is going by at hyperspeed,” said Williams. “It’s draining, and the demands on our time interrupt the ability to concentrate and have thought; to set aside hours—not just five minutes, but hours—to think about a problem.”

Making a difference as a student requires determination and choosing a topic you are passionate about, Williams said. “Find what you love, find what captures your imagination, and run with it.”

Bridges suggested writing a note as a way to take ownership of the law school experience. For her, engaging with legal analysis and producing her own work allowed her to feel empowered and productive as a student of law. “You can’t do everything, you can’t solve all of the legal problems that exist,” she explained, “but you can integrate a discrete problem and feel productive in doing so.”

When discussing progress and improvements, Williams mentioned definitional theft and why it is discouraging to see the way technology has led to inversions of meaning, specifically when dealing with issues like critical race theory. Her suggestion for getting past this barrier is to focus on the philological problem of thinking in broad categories and broad plurals. It wipes out the kindness of taking time to know each other as individuals while simultaneously understanding epidemiological and sociological forces that characterize us as groups,” she said.

Bridges highlighted the fact that there are more women of color in the academy compared to the past, and how that is an example of progress in terms of who gets to stand in front of a class and teach the law, but she added that there is more work to be done before the representation is equal.

“People from a variety of backgrounds teaching the law means that students are going to be exposed to different understandings of the law,” said Bridges. She contended that this will broaden the legal academy and allow more conversations about identity, race, class, and gender.

Bridges called on students to welcome the discomfort that comes with hearing other people’s experiences of the world. “I’m not doing my job if you are leaving my classroom having never been uncomfortable. You should welcome the discomfort because it challenges you, it broadens your worldview, and it broadens your mind.”