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Excerpted From: Cristal E. Jones, Still Strangers in the Land: Achievement Barriers, Burdens, and Bridges Facing African American Students Within Predominately White Law Schools, 39 Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality 13 (Winter, 2021) (218 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CristalEJonesThese black students had “put aside” their problems about race, which is to say, they had internalized the self-hate engendered and sustained by societal pressures on all blacks, and resolved them by a determination to win white acceptance by becoming carbon copies of their white peers.

But the success was as black students trying hard to be white, accepting all manner of slights and insults, intended and unconscious, and attempting all too successfully not to remember that it was all a charade and that whatever the quality of the performance, it would never be accepted as truly authentic by the audience for whose benefit it was performed.

I survived the class and somehow succeeded in my studies despite what seemed at the time the necessity of providing my classmates, most of whom were well-meaning, but few of whom had any prior contact with blacks, with a liberal education on race relations.

The inability or plain unwillingless [sic] of faculties to adhere to the basic principle of teaching--start where the students are--constitutes the single most serious cause of black students' failure to adjust to white law schools.

Each statement above was written in 1970 by the late Derrick Bell, Jr., Dean of Oregon School of Law, in the article Black Students in White Law Schools: The Ordeal and the Opportunity. Each statement was written fifty years ago, when African American law students entered and often graduated from white law schools as “stranger[s] in a strange land ....” Many of those sentiments still ring true today.

The quote “stranger in a strange land” refers to the alien experience described by American abolitionist Harriet Tubman after she escaped from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. As one of a small number of African Americans living in the North while free, Tubman was astonished to learn that this freedom would call her to live life in the North as an outsider within a white community. That community seemed to accept her presence but did not welcome it. Today, that same feeling of admission yet exclusion is a sentiment widely held by African American law students. These students, comprising a small racial group in law school, “cross [] the line” into a predominately white environment and struggle to pursue law as outsiders within a white community that seems to accept their presence but does not always welcome it.

Hundreds of years before Harriet Tubman, when the first African slave arrived in Jamestown, America's societal ills began to infect the African American community. Those societal ills, namely racial legacies that resulted in disparities and inequities, are still deeply rooted within the American pillars of education, government, health, housing, and commerce. While many of those racial legacies have been repealed and nullified, including the acts once wielded against African Americans by the Supreme Court, those legacies still influence how African American law students relate to the persistent structural, psychological, and social barriers. These barriers profoundly contribute to the African American law student achievement gap.

Although law school's first year can be “academically and psychologically traumatic” for all entering students because of the unique mental challenges of legal analysis, for African American students, the first year of law school can be even more traumatic. Certainly, many African American law students succeed, yet some do not. It is difficult to surmise what specifically about the law school culture contributes to a negative or positive consequence because the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) data only reports three student credentials: the type of school attended, Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA), and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score. Although the data provided by LSAC regarding the law school atmosphere is limited, data models and research suggest that atmosphere significantly impacts the achievement of African American law students.

In this Article, I offer specific explanations about how the law school culture contributes to negative or positive consequences for African American law students. Further, I describe the research on the structural, psychological, and social factors that face the African American community, and more specifically, the African American experience in the law school environment. I discuss the implications for African American students and law schools. Finally, I make recommendations to help overcome the academic achievement gap experienced by African American law students.

For the purposes of group identification, I will use the term “African American,” “students of color,” “white,” and “dominant culture.” These terms are used to reflect the socially recognized distinctions within the United States' racial hierarchy. The terms “African American” and “students of color” are used to reference citizens of the United States with African ancestry. The terms “white” and “dominant culture” are used to reference the citizens of the United States with European ancestry. This is a generalization for the purposes of a broader discussion and is not meant to negate or overlook the individual nuances that are collapsed within each group identification category.

This Article seeks to examine those barriers and burdens faced by African Americans in the pursuit of law as outsiders, while offering bridges of hope for the future. My goal is to make visible the barriers that impede African American success within the law school environment and articulate practices that can narrow, and even eliminate, the achievement gap. I believe that “[t]he road may be rough, the journey may be tough and the experience may be bitter, but they are stepping stones to our future thrones.” This future is an unstigmatized realization of academic achievement. I hope that in another fifty years, the African American law student will no longer exist as a “stranger in a strange land.”

[. . .]

In 1965, during Howard University's commencement, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

While African American students may still contend with those chains in the form of structural, psychological, and social barriers, the achievement gap that they experience can be narrowed. Law schools have an obligation to create access for these students who have been historically excluded from the legal profession. To that end, African American students will require a more sensitive and timely approach to address their unique needs. Today, admissions criteria, teaching methods, and course curriculum should reflect the African American lawyer's function and responsibility to society. As Dean Bell aptly stated, “Blacks do not expect the law schools to advocate revolution. They do, however, expect a view of the world, the law, and society more encompassing than that held by Louis XIV.” Law schools must lead the legal profession and our society in justice for all. Dean Bell envisioned that “[a]s the transition from a white law school with a few token [African Americans] evolves to a multi-racial law school (including faculty and administration) issues of ... 'racist teachers,’ [administrators, and students] ... 'recede.”’ African American law students should no longer have to enter and graduate as “strangers in a strange land.” The prognosis is one of optimism.

Cristal E. Jones is a third-year law student at the University of Oregon School of Law.

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