Last month, a group of students from the UCLA School of Law put together a video to call awareness to the emotional toll placed on students of color due to their alarmingly low representation within the student body.
“I am so tired of being on this campus everyday and having to plead my humanity, essentially, to other students. I feel like an outsider constantly. I don’t feel like at my own school I can solely focus on being a student,” one student said.
The video was met with mixed reactions with some support for the students but many telling them to “get over it.”
Gregory Davis, a student/mentor at the UCLA School of Law talked to NewsOne about the controversy over a lack of diversity at the school that took social media by storm. Davis opened up about his experiences as a black student at the law school and addressed the comments of many who believed the plight of the law students just wasn’t that big of a deal. Here’s what he had to say:
Over the past several weeks, multiple news agencies have discussed the recent racial hostilities at UCLA School of Law. The Black law students, spurred by both previous moments of racial apprehension and the overall lack of representation – comprising just 3% of the law student body, or about 33 students – created a YouTube video detailing the feelings of isolation, tokenism, and invisibility in attending the school. After the video premiered, the Black students and their allies began an awareness campaign at the University to show the greater student body and the School of Law administration that “diversity matters.”
Watch the video at the heart of the controversy.
As these things often go, UCLA administration, School of Law students, and countless online commenters met the work of the Black law students with indifference, disdain, or outright hostility. Just as progress began to happen, one male student accosted two female students of color in an elevator and a first-year student received a note in her mailbox inviting her to, “Stop being a sensitive n**ger.” These vile acts have set off a new wave of concern, activism, and solidarity for the future of the School of Law and the wellbeing of the Black law students there.
What is little known but easily understood about the recent events at UCLA are that they are not new, and that they do not occur in a vacuum. I have attended UCLA School of Law since 2010, and in my four years here have seen many acts of racial animus or micro-aggressions based on discomfort, suspicion, or hostility. I came to UCLA fresh from graduating at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Like my hometown of Detroit, Morehouse was full of Black students and placed in a city where people of color existed in high number and, more importantly, mattered in areas of politics, social life and business. When I arrived to Los Angeles, I knew that I would not find a Black Mecca at UCLA, but I did expect to enter into a liberal bastion, and to find students more focused on how others thought than how others looked.
When I entered my first year of law school, a large and dark-skinned Black man with no history or family in California I could look to for support, I found an environment I was not at all prepared for and a campus environment not prepared for me. I arrived late off the waitlist, barely able to get an apartment – let alone efficiently read cases for class. Without the guidance or support of lawyers in my family or in my social networks, I found my first year endlessly frustrating and hurtful to my sense of self.
As almost anyone with graduate training will tell you, these feelings are not unique to students off the waitlist, students who go to law school away from home or, especially, students of color. Almost everyone – White or Black, middle-class or poor – finds law school hard and soul crushing. What made my experience different, and what I share with the Black first-year School of Law Students today, was added stress, anxiety and hostility due to my race.
Race comes up in law school a lot. In standard first-year courses like Criminal Law and Constitutional Law, and even Contracts and Property, America’s ugly treatment of persons of color tracks quite forcefully through major court cases. Quite often, one of my classes would feature a case with a Black defendant or Black victim, with each decision careful to overlook (or sometimes overemphasize) the economic and historical contexts that surrounded the persons involved.
Whenever these cases came up in discussion, my heart would race and my palms would sweat. As one of only four Black students in my first-year classes (one of two men,) I knew that these cases were speaking about me just as much as about the particular parties. I knew that it was relatively easy for me to be shot down on a subway car for asking the wrong question or face life imprisonment for looking the wrong way on the street. I knew that these cases were not far removed from my childhood in Detroit or my time in the West End of Atlanta. More important, other students knew of these connections.
When these cases came up, my presence in the room became paramount. If I spoke, my voice became the voice of Black people. For my classmates and professors, I either confirmed a stereotyped and anti-social view of Black or presented myself as far too respectable to relate to such criminals. If I did not speak on these cases, the silence echoed a consenting vote on the outcome of the case, further validating the Rule of Law as applied to Black communities to my peers. These Catch-22s, staying invisible or becoming a “true Black,” made the classroom experience at law school anxiety-producing to the point where I would skip class and miss the discussion entirely.
What’s more, some students found any discussion of race – even when the assigned case clearly had a racial context – to be a biased waste of time. Many of my fellow classmates found race irrelevant to American law, particularly in the present day, and wanted to see racism as divorced from justice in this country. Once, a generally friendly classmate of mine went on for a quarter hour with me about how our Constitutional Law professor, a Black woman, talked too much about race and had a racist agenda. When I pointed out that the professor in question spent more time talking about the Commerce Clause than the Equal Protection Clause, and that she mostly mimed the liberal views of the White male author of our casebook, I found that my words were ignored. Moments like this peppered my first year experience and made me realize that no matter how appreciated my “diversity” was in the law school classroom, I would never be accepted.
In my second through fourth years, I found solace both in and outside of the School of Law. I combined my degree with a Masters in Afro-American studies in my second year to get away from the School of Law and re-center my racial identity. When I returned to the School of Law, I found strength in UCLA’s Critical Race Studies curriculum, learning alongside racially diverse students dedicated to repairing the relationship between race and law. Like at Morehouse, I learned best when I surrounded by students who valued my input and rooted for my success.
Without my fellow Black, Native American, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander, and progressive White students within the program, I would have continued law school with the same sense of marginalization I had as a first year.
What the administration of the School of Law may miss is that racially understanding and beneficial environments cannot exist solely in a few classes or only among students of color. All spaces need to be welcoming and dynamic, ready to appreciate and respect students from differing perspectives. The recent racial incidences at UCLA are clear examples of what can happen when diversity and inclusion are regulated to some but not all of an institution.
As I prepare to graduate and begin my PhD studies – researching diversity and inclusion in higher education, unsurprisingly – I make certain to reach out to the current first- and second-year students dismayed by their experiences in law school. For many of them, the fight to create a more welcoming school is paramount to their success and on par with high grades as markers of accomplishment. I know that they are just another chapter in a saga of making institutions such as top law school just a little more inclusive than the generation before. Although I know that law school is not the most racially hostile environment they or I will ever encounter, I encourage them to keep fighting for a better tomorrow. I hope we all can do the same.