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Teaching in a World of Racism Without Racists?

ADR Prof Blog

As the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend comes to an end, and as a new semester is beginning, I am thinking about how we talk about race, and how we handle race, both in the classroom and in the larger society. Clearly the events in Ferguson last year, the unfortunately not uncommon killing of a young black man by a police officer coupled with the all too common failure to criminally prosecute the police officer, is just one aspect of the larger issues in our society.

Following on the events in Ferguson, one piece published by CNN, gives a nice run-down of the problems of implicit bias, and how different communities in the United States speak differently about race: Racism without Race.

The article recounts studies that most of us are probably aware of. There is the employment study showing that whites just released from prison with felony records have greater success finding jobs than African Americans without a criminal record. There is the study where applicants with African American sounding names, such as “Jamal” were 50% less likely to get called for an interview than those with Anglo sounding names.

The article also discusses the different way that whites and minorities talk about racism. Whites tend to discount it unless it is personal—they don’t see the structures in our society that give whites advantages.

We have, fortunately, moved beyond a time when it was culturally acceptable to openly state racist beliefs. But, as this article and studies about implicit bias point out, we are far from being beyond racism and endemic bias. The challenge now is how do we talk about it? And, as legal educators, how do we teach it?

The CNN piece points out that “it’s even more difficult to get smart people to admit bias…the smarter we are, the more self-confident we are, the more successful we are, the less likely we’re going to question our own thinking.”

Law students can often fall into this trap, particularly as one by-product of the law school experience is that students learn to argue positions and changing a position can be seen as a weakness.

I have decided I need to do more to teach about implicit bias—as it impacts communication with clients, as it impacts decisions in negotiations, as it impacts policy decisions. The challenge is how to do this in a meaningful way.

Andrea posted an example of a wonderful classroom exercise that she used last semester here .

Are others incorporating new exercises into their courses? I think I’m not the only one struggling with how to do better and I would welcome any examples of what others have been doing that is working.

I also know we have a number of students (and former students) who read this blog and I would love to also hear from you about what your professors have done that you thought worked well.


Cynthia Alkon

Cynthia Alkon joined the faculty at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in 2010. She was an assistant professor of law at the Appalachian School of Law from 2006-2010. Prior to joining academia, Professor Alkon was a criminal defense lawyer and worked in rule of law development in Eastern Europe and Central… MORE >

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