The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
By: Marquisa Wince
Cities across the country continue to embark on another leg of the seemingly endless journey towards building a more racially just society for Black Americans. Protests and demonstrations in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin have taken place everyday since March 28th. Milwaukee is the same city where one of the country’s longest running protests lasting 207 consecutive days took place. Though the current focus has shifted from racial justice within housing practices, the underlying cause remains unaddressed.
Racial injustice and anti-blackness are inextricably tied to every aspect of American Society. However, within the context of policing and law enforcement the evidence of anti-black practices and policies dates back to their very inception in this country. Therefore, the end of the Criminal Justice System as we know it in this country must be the ultimate goal for all who seek to fight for justice.
Law students are uniquely positioned to gain the skills necessary to critically engage with this on a systemic level. This places a duty on law schools to embark on a journey of their own. One that not only provides students with skills, but does so in a way that actively encourages the use of those skills to re-imagine what justice in America looks like.
One would think that Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure courses allow law students to understand the clear patterns of racism and anti-blackness within American Jurisprudence. What I’ve learned is that these courses, like many others, fail to address these patterns head-on. This failure is all too common and detrimental to the ability of legal professionals to adequately advocate for systemic changes.
In reality, many law students leave law school without ever critically engaging in conversations about race within the American Legal System. Margalynne J. Armstrong and Stephanie M. Wildman, Teaching Race/Teaching Whiteness: Transforming Colorblindness to Color Insight, 86 N.C. L. REV. 635, 638-39 (2008). Some go on to lead careers with the belief that the law is designed to afford every American an equal shot at justice. What needs to be understood is that this belief, however ill-founded, is the vision that many of us seek to create. Further, this belief is one that is arguably aligned with aspects of the abolitionist movement.
“Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.” Rachel Kushner, Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind, N.Y. Times (April 17, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html.
Though often painted as an unrealistic political movement, the abolitionist movement’s foundational principle of fully eradicating the current system while simultaneously building a more just and equitable one is exactly what we all should be seeking. However, the reliance of communities on law enforcement creates a fear that causes many to struggle in imagining a world without it. What is clear is that Black communities are forced to rely on a policing system that is not designed to adequately serve and protect them. Drew Desilver, Michael Lipka And Dalia Fahmy, 10 things we know about race and policing in the U.S., Pew Research Center, (June 3, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/03/10-things-we-know-about-race-and-policing- in-the-u-s/.
This is a problem that goes beyond the laws and their enforcement, and ends only with a re-imagining of what safety, security, and justice looks like for all Americans. So, what role can law schools play in this fight?
It’s no longer enough to teach students how the system works and how the law has developed to fit neatly within the status-quo. Students must be challenged, from the beginning of their legal education, to apply their understanding of the current legal system to one that works more effectively in protecting the rights and privileges of all. In order for this to be possible, there must be mandated, first year curriculum and training that teaches students and faculty how to critically engage in conversations about race within the classroom. Anastasia M. Boles, The Culturally Proficient Law Professor: Beginning the Journey, 48 N.M. L. Rev. 145 (2018). Schools must also audit policies and practices on their campuses in order to identify areas where they perpetuate racial injustices. Ultimately, there must be a re-imagining on every level. A re-imagining of how we learn about justice will lead to a re-imagining of how we fight for it.