CUNY

After a Starbucks employee called the police on Black customers waiting for a friend, Starbucks will today close all U.S. stores to hold an “anti-bias” training for its 175,000 employees. As often noted, eliminating racial bias in individuals and institutions demands much more than a one time training. Any company or institution truly committed to creating an inclusive environment for diverse racial and gender identities must commit to a longer anti-oppression process, one focused on addressing the myriad of ways that racism is built into institutional or corporate structures.

Public education institutions have an even more fundamental and urgent responsibility to confront and remedy systemic bias. As CUNY Law students, we can speak directly to the need for such a systemic reckoning given the layers of racism and gendered oppression that are so entrenched and normalized in the culture of legal education. Because of CUNY Law’s specific commitment to the public interest and social justice, we expected to be trained to “right the wrongs, stand up for the underserved and fight for social justice,” and to critically engage with the inherent racism of the law.

However, we are often told that professors do not have time to delve into a more critical analysis. As our classmates wrote to CUNY Law’s administration, “We have been denied even the most basic acknowledgment of racism in some of the most racially charged cases in our nation’s history. While examining Plessy v. Ferguson, our constitutional law professor neither explicitly denounced nor even acknowledged the racism in the decision, nor allowed students to raise the issue themselves.” In the decades since Plessy, as the racism in the law becomes more concealed and insidious, our critical engagement with case law becomes more urgent. Nonetheless, students with marginalized identities are consistently subjected to a neutral discussion of the very ideas, principles and policies that have questioned their existence and sustained violence in their communities for centuries.

When we have raised the various ways in which this neutrality makes it difficult for marginalized students to participate in and be present for classroom discussion, the administration has told us to simply toughen up.

Though administration has previously offered one-day diversity trainings, they have only been available to first year students during orientation. These trainings, led by White facilitators who have not experienced racial oppression, often burdened students of color in attendance with explaining and illustrating racial oppression. Many of our non-White classmates felt exposed and exhausted at the end, ostensibly made that way for White students’ learning benefit. After multiple failed trainings, the burden continues to fall on students to facilitate conversations about race and privilege amongst ourselves, or identify trainers who can effectively facilitate anti-racism work. In this way, students of color often find themselves in positions similar to the two men arrested at Starbucks: painted as the problem rather than part of the solution to addressing institutional racism. Only difference is we (CUNY students) don’t end up arrested.

Without effective anti-oppression training at CUNY Law, students from marginalized communities continue to endure the discrimination that results when institutional racism and biases go ignored for too long. For instance, in March 2018, students organized a survey focused on scholarship distribution among current students. Of the 86 people surveyed, White students (approximately half of the respondents) collectively received $1,839,000 in graduate fellowships, annual scholarships, and summer funding, while students of color received just $663,500 of funding from CUNY.

Professors have repeatedly demonstrated their own racial biases in the classroom. In a criminal law class, one professor drew a comparison between women suffering from battered women’s syndrome and the infamous case, People v. Goetz, in which the older White male defendant shot four Black teenage boys after they asked him for five dollars, severing the spinal cord of one of the boys. While this case can be used to show how the law has been used to protect perpetrators of racist violence, the professor instead highlighted that because Goetz had been robbed in the past, his behavior could be compared to that of an abused woman who fights back against her abuser. A Black woman in the class raised her hand multiple times to challenge the professor on conflating racist violence with the trauma associated with intimate partner violence, but was ignored by the professor until after class, when he privately asked her to explain to him how he could have better navigated that conversation.

Even in what is proclaimed to be a progressive, inclusive legal education space, students of color are told they must conform to White supremacy, rather than have their legal education reflect and respond to their struggles and lived experiences. CUNY Law has an opportunity to acknowledge its own capacity to perpetuate inequitable and violent social structures, and to act as a leader for other state educational institutions, as well as private companies like Starbucks, by demonstrating a commitment to institutional change. To do this, CUNY Law must commit to a long-term, meaningful, anti-oppression process. Anything short of that, will demonstrate that CUNY Law’s commitment to social justice is nothing more than a brand. Furthermore, without this process, CUNY Law students of color will continue to be misled by the school’s proclaimed commitment to public interest.

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Rachel Goodman and Florence Otaigbe are part of a coalition of CUNY Law Students, many of whom contributed to this op-ed.

14 thoughts on “CityViews: CUNY Law School Needs to Confront its Race Problem

  1. Thank you. While I know “Plessy”, I’m old enough to have read Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Nothing has really changed.

  2. The problem may be one of legal education vs. CUNY’s race problem…Legal education is
    focused on analysis of cases and on general principles sufficient to pass the Bar examination.
    One cannot really do much good in social justice policy w/o these basic underpinnings. I’m
    a graduate of Rutgers Law School, which has been a leader in affirmative policies and in
    civil rights while also producing highly-qualified lawyers ( like Elizabeth Warren, for ex.)–
    yet a high percentage of Rutgers students from disadvantaged backgrounds failed their Bar exams. at the time I attended ( don’t know nos. currently). So,
    I think legal rigor in the classroom (vs emphases on racism or social policy) is needed to assure
    that CUNY Law students may act effectively in future and have the necessary background to do so,,,

  3. Thank you for this research on the disparity of funding white students and students of color. I witnessed this as a CUNY law student and was really frustrated about it. This should be explicitly addressed and corrected now. I think law school classes can and should develop a critical race theory track to complement doctrine. Other schools do it. There’s no reason to keep marginalized students from adding to this dialogue and scholarship. Lastly, I don’t think law school classes have much to do with passing the bar. I got bad grades in law school and passed the bar first time. I do think that fatigue and frustration from experiencing racism at school does disadvantage some students from effectively studying and preparing for the bar.

  4. The criminal law professor referred to above, in comparing battered woman syndrome and people v. Goetz was merely explaining the similarities in the legal arguments to explain how the case came out the way it did. You are at law school to learn the law, so learn it. To not understand how the otherside thinks and to reduce everything to “racism” is not only stupid, but its a cop out that only works within the confines of CUNY law. When you graduate law school you will have to make *gasp* legal arguments. So lets focus on that instead of making the argument that Professor Robson, a brilliant con law professor, isnt acknowledging that racism existed in the time of Plessy v. Ferguson. Heres some advice : toughen and pay attention so you can match fire with fire when some prosecutor comes at you with a for real legal argument. Or just keep crying like infants. Its a big bad world out there, the powers that be do not give a f– about your feelings. Lets act accordingly.

  5. I suspect what actually happened was professor Robson was trying to teach new law students the legal reasoning of the Plessy decision instead of letting it devolve into a race consciousness raising feels-fest on the 1L’s classes’ 3rd day of law school. The majority of LEDP is spent on race and equal protection but, no, Robson doesn’t let the 150 student sized class become a race and gender studies sociology course because this is law school, you need to learn how to correctly interpret the law, and that wont happen if you let 1Ls go on tangents. There are 15 person seminar style classes that are more conducive to that kind of discussion but, again, this is *law* school.

    CUNY has its problems with race. High drop out rates, low bar passage rates and professors confusing students of color just to name a few. But as someone several years out of CUNY and into practice I have to tell you the legal profession is way less nice, way less aware and way more racist, sexist and homophobic at its very best than CUNY ever was at its worst. You simply *have* to toughen up.

  6. CUNY law student here who attended both classes mentioned. This is complete misrepresentation of what happened. Robson (con law) is an amazing teacher. To make her out to being insensitive to racial aspects of the historical case is just ridiculous.
    David Nadvotney is an amazing teacher. He did not ignore the upset student in that class. On the contrary–he gave her much more attention than she deserved and showed immense compassion while trying to make an important legal-education point.

    I understand the anger and passion which many CUNY students who do agree with this post feel. I feel it too. But you’re shooting yourself in the foot not only educationally–this is counter productive as a world view. You are sowing division amongst your own ranks. You are making enemies of those who are your closest allies. You are weakening your cause. You are not fighting racism in America. You are perpetuating it.

    I’m sure the students who wrote this think that it exemplifies the compassion and sorrow they feel over the terrible social injustices that still exist. But they’re delusional. There is no compassion here. This has been written by big egos–egos fed off of thoughtless, immature self-righteousness and sectarianism.

    Sadly, I know this will not soften the minds of the authors. But at least others will know the truth as I witness it and the unfairness of this post.

  7. CUNY law student here who attended both classes mentioned. This is complete misrepresentation of what happened. Robson (con law) is an amazing teacher. Her academic credentials on social justice issues put these criticisms in a truly ludicrous light. Her class was perfectly delivered both from a “learning the law” perspective and the level of criticism she did express towards aspects of it.
    David Nadvorney is an amazing teacher. He did not ignore the upset student in that class. On the contrary–he gave her much more attention than she deserved and showed immense compassion while trying to make an important legal-education point.

    I understand the anger and passion which CUNY students who do agree with this post feel. I feel it too. But you’re shooting yourself in the foot not only educationally–this is counter productive as a world view. You are sowing division amongst your own ranks. You are making enemies of those who are your closest allies. You are weakening your cause. You are not fighting racism in America. You are perpetuating it.

    I’m sure the students who wrote this think that it exemplifies the compassion and sorrow they feel over the terrible social inequalities that still exist. There is no compassion here. This has been written by big egos–egos fed off of thoughtless, immature self-importance and self-righteousness.

    Sadly, I know this comment will not soften the minds of the authors. But at least others will know the truth as I witness it and the unfairness of this post.

    • Thank you. Especially Rachel Goodman. I am tired of white women with a savior complex trying to have a conversation about race and “save the day”. Also why is she even the first author named on this article, or named on this article at all? Honestly Florence, even though I don’t really care for her as much, should have taken the lead on this article because she actually knows what she is talking about. Rachel Goodman, take several seats.

  8. I am accepted to CUNY fall 2018. This article makes me feel very uncomfortable! I’m also accepted by NYLS with a scholarship. Also CUNY law being parsimonious about giving scholarships for students of color is troubling.

    • If you have a scholarship from NYLS call CUNY and tell them that. That’s how I got mine.

      Because frankly, if you think CUNY is bad you’ll be miserable at a traditional law school.

  9. Anon, this article is complete garbage. The only problem this school has is race-baiting, recent bad press, and dramatic students. Believe me, this school is not “parsimonious” about being giving scholarships to POC. I’m pretty sure we are the only ones who even get them.

    • The author provided evidence to support her assertion that minority students at CUNY Law on average receive fewer scholarships, and though it is far from a truly random sampling experiment, she acknowledges the shortcomings in her survey design. Nevertheless, her findings are consistent with current literature on the racialized distribution of merit scholarships at law schools. You present nothing more than an uneducated guess, or at minimum failed to present even a name that we may rely on to establish your credentials that demonstrate your expertise on the subject whereas to convince us that we may rely solely on your word.

  10. The author’s argument was that in order for an institution to truly create an inclusive environment it must take substantive steps toward that goal by creating long-term policies and procedures. Each of the incidents mentioned were not provided as evidence of a non-inclusive environment, nor were they presented as examples of racism or racial bias. The incident pertaining to the discussion of Plessy v Ferguson in the constitutional law class was provided to support the author’s premise that a law school that boasts of its commitment to social justice must “critically engage with the inherent racism of the law.” Much of the criticism has attempted to refute the authors point by noting that the professor’s goal in the discussion was to detail the theories that allowed for the court’s decision. Many have also chastised the author for missing this point. However, this criticism fails to grasp that that was exactly the author’s point, which was that the fact that legal principles support overtly discriminatory racialized laws demonstrates the propensity of the legal profession to uphold institutionalized racism and racialized power structures. The author argued of the importance of understanding and acknowledging this for lawyers who claim to have a desire to fight for social justice. Therefore, while some have blasted the author for failing to “understand how the other side thinks,” in neglecting to consider the nuanced manner in which the author’s claims relate to law, and immediately dismissing them, these commentators commit the very same error in which they accuse the author.

    Rather than race being inconsequential to the legal arguments and principles of Plessy v Ferguson, in Brown v BoE the Court believed it to be fundamental in deliberating the soundness of the doctrine that was established through Plessy. The court then abstracted a new prevailing doctrine that, in regards to education, separate was inherently unequal. Within the 50 years between the two cases the relevant law remained unchanged, and thus the court relied solely on theory and new interpretations of the law to support their ruling. Thus, a discussion on the effects of judicial doctrine on institutionalized racism would not have been inappropriate for a law school course, nor would it have disadvantaged students. Indeed, the process of understanding the intersection of race on legal doctrine would have been advantageous to students as it forces students to engage course case readings, and it allows for the practice of the cognitive processes that are required in forming new arguments. Indeed, such a discussion would reinforce course concepts and provide a practical approach to connecting competing legal doctrines and their implications on concepts such as stare decisis.

    A feature that distinguishes good attorneys from those who are great is the creative ability to find new methods of applying statute and doctrine to new sets of facts. Therefore, rather than being disadvantaged by the inability to fight “fire with fire when some prosecutor comes at you with real arguments,” students who are forced to engage with the racialized elements of the legal profession and are challenged to consider new methods of applying legal theory to the relevant facts, or nontraditional ways of considering traditional theories will have an advantage over their adversaries.

    Instead of dismissing the authors claims as an inherent tendency to reduce everything to racism, we should first ensure that we have accurately captured the author’s point, and then attempt to understand them, rather than immediately dismissing them.

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