Race and the Law Course Highlights Emerging Scholarship
A new class taught this spring by Dean Heather K. Gerken and Deputy Dean Ian Ayres ’86 offered the chance for students to engage with scholarship while addressing a broad range of issues related to race, racism, and inequality.
The class, “Race and the Law,” included a workshop component in which scholars presented papers based on their research via Zoom. At the same time, the course discussed topics ranging from policing and property to immigration and tax law, always with an eye on the relationship of these legal areas to race and systemic racism, according to Ayres.
“Especially during this moment of racial reckoning, we wanted to bring outstanding professors from around to country to enrich our engagement with vital and difficult questions concerning race,” Ayres said.
In most class meetings, a speaker presented a work in progress for members of the seminar to workshop. Students submitted a short response to the work — a critique, question, or a view on a significant element of the work — to be shared with the speakers in advance. For each workshop, students selected as co-leaders led the discussion on their classmates’ responses to kickstart the conversation.
Some students found themselves drawn to the class due to the especially fraught current moment in the nation’s history.
“Questions around racial healing and reparative social policy are what brought me to law school,” said Brent Godfrey ’23, a student in the class. “This course seemed like a great way to explore those questions with scholars who have spent their lives engaging with them.”
The weekly guest speakers enhanced the conversation about how race intersects with the law. Speakers included Maggie Blackhawk (University of Pennsylvania Law School), Khiara Bridges (U.C. Berkeley School of Law), K-Sue Park (Georgetown Law), Devon Carbado (UCLA Law School), Jennifer Chacón ’98 (UCLA Law School), Dorothy Brown (Emory Law School), and Amna Akbar (Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University).
“What a gift to be at institution that opens itself up to outside experts,” Godfrey said.
Nicole Allicock ’22, the teaching assistant for the class, said that the class was beneficial both for topics she was familiar with, as well as those that were new to her.
“The scholars and the conversation provided a deeper look at the ramifications of policies I had only studied in the abstract,” Allicock said. “When we discussed topics that were newer to me, I especially looked forward to the insights my peers brought to the table of their own perspectives on the topic and questions their education had left unanswered.”
“As a student, it was an incredible opportunity to engage with such innovative work, and I was often awestruck at the amount and level of research being conducted by these scholars.”
—Rekha Kennedy ’23
One of the goals of the seminar, according to Ayres, was to provide an opportunity through the workshop component for students to consider a future academic career for themselves.
“We hope to nurture student interest in becoming professors,” Ayres said. “We had each speaker talk about how they became a professor so that it would be easier for students to see how it is possible to progress from law student to professor.”
Allicock said that she welcomed the chance to meet and learn from scholars of color, many of whom are rising stars in academia.
Another goal of the seminar was to introduce students to workshop culture, according to Ayres, and model the different ways to engage with works in progress. Part of each class was reserved for conversation about the process of workshopping itself.
The class was a chance to see the “inside baseball” of legal academia from the inception of the article idea all the way to its presentation in workshop, according to Rekha Kennedy ’23, another student in the seminar.
“As someone interested in academia, it was wonderful to see junior faculty of color discuss their journey into the field,” she said. “It was a treat to hear from Dean Gerken and Dean Ayres on their respective process of coming up with and writing articles.”
Kennedy said that a highlight of the class was to speak with Dorothy Brown of Emory Law School about the process of writing her book The Whiteness of Wealth.
“A conversation that came up in many classes were the ways in which many outside speakers were building the legal fields as they wrote about them,” Kennedy said. “As a student, it was an incredible opportunity to engage with such innovative work, and I was often awestruck at the amount and level of research being conducted by these scholars.”
According to Godfrey, the class represented an opportunity to plant the seeds of meaningful change.
“Race and racism are baked into every aspect of the law,” Godfrey said. “From policing to housing to immigration to health to tax, race informs our policies and laws, and law and policy have racialized consequences,” Godfrey said. “It’s incumbent on places like YLS to think about how to interrupt and transform those dynamics. That work can start with these sorts of conversations and classes — but that’s just the beginning.”