Though some U.S. law schools have been teaching about the relationship between race, racism and the law for decades, such efforts have intensified since the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 and swept across the country.
Several law school professors who specialize in racial justice law told U.S. News that BLM protests galvanized curricular reform campaigns in law schools, leading many schools to begin teaching more thoroughly about the disparate impact of laws and law enforcement methods on marginalized populations.
“It has moved institutions that tend to move more slowly to evolve at a more rapid pace in response to what has been this incredible social moment,” says Vivian E. Hamilton, a law professor at William & Mary Law School in Virginia and founding director of its Center for Racial & Social Justice.
Proponents of these kinds of reforms say that all aspiring attorneys need to have some knowledge about the ways laws and policies can discriminate against people of color and the extent to which seemingly race-neutral rules can have a disproportionate impact on minorities.
According to Hamilton, one catalyst for the momentum behind reforms at U.S. law schools was demand from incoming students, many of whom wanted to become attorneys at least in part because of concerns about racial inequities. Law school leaders and teachers recognized the need to prepare civic-minded students for social advocacy careers, she adds.
How Race Is Addressed at U.S. Law Schools
In recent years, J.D. programs that previously lacked significant content about race and racism in required courses and had not even offered elective classes focusing on the subject started to do so, law school faculty say.
One sign of the transformation in J.D. programs, these faculty say, is a component of the American Bar Association accreditation standards that was added in April 2022. Revisions that were approved by the ABA House of Delegates through a 348-to-17 vote included a mandate that all ABA-accredited law schools “shall provide education to law students on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism.”
These lessons need to occur at least twice in a legal degree program – once at the beginning of law school and again prior to graduation. ABA-accredited law schools must comply with this guidance by fall 2023 to keep their accreditation.
Some law school professors have criticized the new ABA rules. A group of 10 Yale Law School professors submitted a jointly written memo to the ABA protesting the proposal. These professors argued that the race-related academic directives “attempt to institutionalize dogma, mandating instruction in matters that are unrelated to any distinctively legal skill, hence intruding on the right and obligation of every professor to determine what to teach in a class and how to teach it.”
In February 2022, two attorney representatives of the Legal Insurrection Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on academic freedom and free speech issues, published an op-ed describing the policy as an “instance of woke ideology being forced on the nation.”
Despite some resistance to the incorporation of race-related content into law school courses, those issues are currently covered in core classes at many J.D. programs.
Some U.S. law schools have centers or institutes that focus on the relationship between race and the law, and a few schools mandate that every student take a class about the historic connection between law, policy and racism in the U.S. For example, in fall 2021, the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law introduced a new required course for J.D. students titled “Race, Racism and the Law.”
Ariela Gross, who helped develop that course and a professor at the law school, says the push to create the class came from multiple directions, including university faculty and the law school student body.
“A basic understanding of the way that race and racism has shaped the law and that law has helped to create racial categories and distinctions is fundamental important knowledge for every lawyer to have, and therefore it should be something that every law student should be exposed to,” says Gross, who has published multiple books about racial justice issues.
According to Gross, one challenge for advocates of this kind of teaching is that there is widespread animosity toward critical race theory.
The premise of critical race theory, a term coined by legal scholars more than 40 years ago, is that racism is embedded into many U.S. laws and government agencies, so much so that it is a systemic problem requiring comprehensive policy solutions. Opponents have recently passed laws in some states banning K-12 schools from teaching CRT, which posits that U.S. society is deeply tainted by racism and the legacy of slavery.
Gross says that much of the resistance to critical race theory is based on misconceptions. “It’s not about making white people feel guilty or some of the things you see in anti-critical-race-theory laws, for example,” she says. “It’s about learning our true history.”
Law Schools With Racial Justice Centers, Clinics or Institutes
Another change occurring at U.S. law schools is the development of law school centers, clinics and institutes that focus primarily on racial justice issues. Howard University School of Law, a historically Black law school in D.C., offers a “movement lawyering clinic” that provides hands-on training in how to support human rights campaigns for disenfranchised people in the U.S.
“We seek to support campaigns that are promoting racial justice causes, and those campaigns may involve structural changes or they may involve some campaigns to create a change in practices around bail reform or criminal justice reform or reparations or the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Justin Hansford, executive director and founder of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard and a professor in the law school.
In law school clinics generally, some students get supervised practice representing individual clients who have cases that relate to racial justice. However, that’s different from what happens in Howard’s new clinic, Hansford says.
“In those campaigns, we work directly with people who are also on the ground seeking to create racial justice in society, and I think that’s irreplaceable,” he says.
Here are some additional examples of law schools that have launched racial justice initiatives, mostly after the onset of Black Lives Matter.
- Fordham University School of Law in New York, Center on Race, Law and Justice
- Georgetown University Law Center in D.C., Racial Justice Institute
- Harvard Law School in Massachusetts, Systemic Justice Project
- Northeastern University School of Law in Massachusetts, Center for Law, Equity and Race
- Stanford Law School in California, Center for Racial Justice
- University of Arkansas—Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, Center for Racial Justice and Criminal Justice Reform
- University of California—Berkeley School of Law, Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice
- University of Cincinnati College of Law, Nathaniel R. Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice
- University of Virginia School of Law, Center for the Study of Race and Law
- University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill School of Law, Center for Civil Rights
- University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Center for Civil Rights and Racial Justice
- Yale Law School in Connecticut, Law and Racial Justice Center
How to Identify a Law School That Excels in Racial Justice Education
The presence of a race-related center, initiative, project or institute at a law school indicates that the school is investing energy and tangible resources into teaching about racial justice issues and preparing people for racial justice careers, says Penelope Andrews, director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School, where she is also a professor.
Courses and recent events or lectures about racial justice are also good signs, Andrews says. Future racial justice advocates should see if there are relevant student organizations and clinics at their target law schools and check on whether the schools’ law reviews or journals have published articles about legal issues where race is a major factor, Andrews adds.
Potential students should also investigate whether a law school’s faculty has produced thoughtful scholarship about race and ask students of color whether the school is covering the subject systematically, she says. If a law school does not emphasize racial justice on its website or in its curriculum, Andrews says, lack of interest in the subject “will be apparent in its absence.”