NEWARK, N.J. — The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who twice ran for president, mocks the notion that the mere fact that a Black person is sitting in the White House means the nation has entered a “post-racial” era.
At best, America is “post-racist in a legal sense, but not post-racial in terms of the unfinished business,” Jackson told law professors and students meeting under the theme of “Our Country, Our World in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era” at the Third National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference at Seton Hall University School of Law.
“We have gone from learning to survive apart but not learning how to live together,” he added. “Furthermore, we should not want to be post-racial. What we want to be is multi-racial and multi-cultural. We should affirm race.”
In a wide-ranging discussion on Friday, Jackson said that the unfinished business includes the many indicators of economic disparities for members of racial and ethnic minority groups but warned also that those who were allies in gaining the legal freedoms of the civil rights era would not necessarily be allies for erasing the disparities found today.
Jackson confirmed his participation just two days before the conference opened, but organizers eagerly rearranged numerous panels to allow participants to hear him. During a special session moderated by Michele B. Goodwin, professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, Jackson skillfully fielded questions. The multicultural audience of law students and scholars accorded him nearly “rock star” status, clamoring to shake his hand, listening attentively and rising for a standing ovation at the conclusion.
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark had expressed similar thoughts on Thursday as the four-day gathering opened. He told the attendees that the country is not in a “post-racial” era and that he would not want it to be as more people become aware of diversity and uncomfortable with resulting disparities.
“How wonderful that we can no longer conveniently sweep issues of race and religious diversity under the mat,” he said. “How wonderful, because to be made uncomfortable is a pathway to a deeper understanding that there is still work to do, there is still history to confront.”
Solangel Maldonado, professor of law at Seton Hall and chair of the conference, said the conference theme reflected concern that, since the election of Barack Obama as president, the media are “always talking about how we are in a post-racial era and how discrimination has really decreased, how it’s really less of a problem and how African-Americans and minorities are doing better than ever because we have a Black president—so that kind of takes care of the problem.”
“Obviously, we don’t believe that,” she added. “So we thought we should really analyze all of the legal areas from the perspective of whether we are really in a ‘post-racial’ area.”
Throughout the weekend, law students and professors attended lively panel discussions on the “post-racial” implications of such topics as social-welfare practices, gender, immigration policy, reparations, policing, disability law and sexual orientation. At official sessions and off-hours, scholars networked, renewed acquaintances, dispensed advice to junior colleagues and talked about their scholarly papers and book projects.
At a session titled “The American Criminal Justice System Is Not Having a Post-Racial Period,” panelists agreed that the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates in July 2009 after a confrontation with a police officer and the reaction to it offered a lens to look at “post-racial” justice. Gates and the officer later were invited to the White House to share beers.
The moderator, Tamara F. Lawson, a professor at St. Thomas University School of Law, said that the fact that investigators glossed over the legal facts of the incident “says a lot about the fact that we are not post-racial and the government is not motivated to move in that direction.”
L. Darnell Weeden, associate dean at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said “elitism had prevailed over race” in this case.
“If Gates had been a regular brother, he probably would have been shot,” added Weeden.
Frank Rudy Cooper, associate professor, Suffolk University Law School, noted that characterizations of Gates as “arrogant” in not deferring to the police during the incident suggested that “the old ‘uppity Negro’ discourse was operating under the surface.”
More than 400 people registered for the conference, including academics and legal practitioners, in addition to more than 50 student volunteers from various law schools.
Derrick Bell, the eminent legal scholar who is a visiting professor at New York University School of Law, attended a plenary honoring the continuing legacy of his work. Another session examined the judicial impact of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired from the Court in June.
For the first time since the conferences began in 1999, the organizers included a Pipeline Program, a half-day “boot camp” for practicing attorneys considering careers in academia on how to apply and what law schools want. About 40 lawyers attended.
“No one really tells you how to do this and it is not at all intuitive,” Maldonado said. “So we think this is one of the reasons people of color are still underrepresented in legal academia. What we’ve found is that people just don’t know what they have to do.”
A reception on Friday honored law school deans of color, past and present. Special awards were presented to LeRoy Pernell, dean of the Florida A&M University College of Law, and Frank H. Wu, dean and chancellor of the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.
Conference organizers also sponsored a student writing competition to encourage law students to consider careers in legal scholarship and invited winners to present their papers. The first-place winner was Rina Wang of the University of Michigan, who told Diverse her paper involved “using jury instructions to correct for implicit racial biases.”
“Implicit biases are biases that most people have against minorities,” Wang said, who has now graduated and works for a law firm in Riverside, Calif. “We are not aware of our own biases, so I proposed jury instructions to make jurors aware that they have these biases, in order to make them self-correct for the biases and to be aware of other jurors’ biases within deliberations.”