Excerpted From: Sonia M. Gipson Rankin, What's (Race In) the Law Got to Do with It: Incorporating Race in Legal Curriculum, 54 Connecticut Law Review 923 (July, 2022) (147 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SoniaMGipsonRankinThe subtitle of the 2021 Connecticut Law Review Symposium, “What's the Law Got to Do With It?,” provides insights into why cognitive dissonance has such an impact on discussing race in legal education. In the same way that Ms. Turner sang that love can be a second-hand emotion in relationship-building, race is often treated as a second-hand consideration in legal education and bar examinations. This discounting is impacting the future of the legal profession.

Born after 1996, Gen Z students currently represent a sizable portion of law school students. The legal academy has attempted to adjust for the arrival of Gen Z students in a myriad of ways. By the time Gen Z-ers enter the legal profession, e-filing, virtual hearings, and cloud computing will always have been the norm to which they are accustomed. For example, law schools have incorporated digital technology into their admissions process, curriculum, and bar exam preparation. Legal education has adopted better practices, as well, such as doctrinal classes incorporating clinical training and other experiential learning; flipped classes, mini-lectures, and group work; and formative assessments, including, inter alia, midterms, quizzes, multi-tasking activities, and oral and written feedback. However, it was not until the murder of George Floyd that the academy turned its efforts to accomplish a long-needed reform: bias and equity education.

Despite the American Bar Association's (ABA) Goal III to “Eliminate Bias and Enhance Diversity” in the legal profession and the justice system, legal education has been slow to progress in addressing the unspoken complexities of context and unconscious bias in and beyond the classroom. Gen Z students were predominately raised in de facto segregated schools and communities reminiscent of those inhabited by the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945. For many students, college and law school will present the first time they are educated in multicultural settings. The legal academy has a critical opportunity to educate future attorneys, legal scholars, executives, judges, and legislators through guided classroom discussions on systemic racism and unconscious bias beginning in the first year of law school. By embedding these conversations in a law school education, students can shape their understanding of the cases they study and learn additional nuances to address in the law. Cognitive dissonance explains why conversations about race and discrimination require a purposeful focus.

In this Essay, Part I describes cognitive dissonance theory, color blindness ideology, and the relationship of these theories to racial inequality. Part II outlines the knowledge, skills, and values students need to discuss racial inequality in law school classrooms. It also provides classroom techniques that encourage dialogue and address tensions related to difficult conversations, using implicit bias and microaggressions in the legal community as examples. This training can serve as teaching and modeling for students to lead peer conversations and support students' preparation for working with clients. Part III concludes that adding these skills and training to our curricula could lead to much-needed systemic change in the legal profession and in society.

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The subtitle of the 2021 Connecticut Law Review Symposium, “What's the Law Got to Do With It?” helps us appreciate how and why cognitive dissonance has such an impact on discussions of race and racism in legal education. Race does not have to be a second-hand topic in legal education. This Essay has raised many questions and tried to answer a few, including the questions of how to take steps in the classroom to reduce cognitive dissonance and how to teach racism and implicit bias. However, many questions remain. When should law schools explore racial bias in tort awards? When is the racialized impact of determining the best interests of children explored? When is understanding implicit bias going to be included in an IRAC analysis for the bar exam? When should law schools begin to monitor how many of their graduates are brought up on ethics violations related to race, class, gender, or sexual orientation as closely as they monitor bar passage? Although issues of race in the law will not be explicitly tested on the bar exam nor tested in every law classroom, such issues will be explored every day in students' future practice. It is imperative that law schools are at the forefront of ensuring that an educated population understands the structural effects of racialization and racism in the United States and around the world. My mentor, Marsha K. Hardeman, frequently reminds me, “They will listen if they know you care.” Through this training, we can forever change the way our students feel, thus improving their capacity to competently and meaningfully practice their trade.

What's race in the law got to do with it? By embracing faith and change in moments of uncertainty, law schools can empower students to be compassionate legal advocates when they depart from our classrooms.