‘Black’ Law Schools Face Challenges Of a New Day
Howard University School of Law is the pre-eminent “Black” law school in this country. Its history of renowned lawyers, academics and jurists make it a respected institution, transcending racial and ethnic barriers. Administrators and alumni work together at Howard Law to effectively hold non-Black enrollment to 20 percent or less, thus assuring a strong continuity with its heritage.
Florida A&M University (FAMU) recently joined the law school ranks with a primary goal of increasing the number of Black attorneys in Florida to more than the present 2 percent, as well as nationwide, where the figure is about 4 percent. These goals are certainly laudable since minority underrepresentation in the legal system historically has facilitated disparate treatment. The attainment of the goals is, however, questionable in light of the decrease in the number of Black law school applicants.
For FAMU, replicating Howard’s success in legal academia will be a daunting task. FAMU’s law school was originally established because Blacks were not allowed to attend the state law schools. When Florida decided to reverse this position, albeit under sometimes egregious circumstances such as Blacks being literally screened from the sight of Whites, the state dismantled the FAMU law school.
Some FAMU officials found the closing of the school more racially prejudicial than its dubious establishment and decided to fight for the school’s reopening. FAMU ultimately became part of a “package deal” establishing a number of new schools throughout Florida. Unlike Howard, FAMU is a state school, meaning almost all activities bear the imprimatur of state action. Thus, showing favoritism to Blacks in admissions, retention or financial assistance may serve as a basis for an equal protection action premised on reverse discrimination. Indeed, Florida’s anti-affirmative action plan known as “One Florida” indirectly inhibits FAMU’s efforts to secure the best pool of Black students.
FAMU also fails to have the benefit of history. While FAMU has mentioned a civil rights focus, “the struggle” does not pervade every aspect of life for Blacks as it did in the past. Thus, while legal freedom fighters of the past flocked to Howard for training at the pre-eminent civil rights school of the day, FAMU does not currently have the benefit of such a central rallying point.
Furthermore, the aforementioned “package deal” was not focused on FAMU’s or Florida’s legal community’s best interest. FAMU’s law school was one of two new law schools supported by the state. These two new law schools bring the number of law schools in Florida to 10. No other state in the Southeast region has more than four. FAMU will carry the low state tuition of approximately $5,000 per year. Other state law schools throughout the country have an annual tuition expense of three times this amount. The private law schools in Florida have annual costs of more than four times the FAMU figure. Hence, it is clear that many students at private law schools in Florida will apply to FAMU, as will a number of non-Floridians. Most of the applications will be from non-Blacks with higher admission test scores and grades than Black applicants.
Certainly, FAMU hopes to be a great law school first, while simultaneously addressing the needs of Black aspiring law students. But the tenor of our times may prevent them from ever attaining prominence as a “Black” law school. Only time will tell whether they can balance the competing pressures that put them in the proverbial Catch-22.
— Darryl C. Wilson is Professor of Law at Stetson University
College of Law in St. Petersburg, Fla., and also board member and Vice-Chair of the Florida Education Fund Executive Committee.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com