What Do We Teach Our Students About Law and Justice?

A Black Lives Matters protest in late May in California.

By Trina Jones and Kimberly Jade Norwood

We are law professors. We are Black Americans. And we are reeling. We are reeling from the devastating effects of COVID-19 on Black, Brown, and Native communities. We are reeling from the recent killings of unarmed Black people. We share the rage of protestors who are filling the nation’s streets and demanding justice. We share their outrage at President Trump’s tweeted threats of military force.

As teachers, we also are struggling with what we will say to our students this fall. What will we teach them about law and justice?

For centuries, our nation has witnessed the unjustifiable killing of Black people by those sworn to protect us. The list, too long to reproduce here, includes: Sean Bell (2006), Oscar Grant (2009), Rekia Boyd (2012), Trayvon Martin (2012), Kayla Moore (2013), Miriam Carey (2013), Tanisha Anderson (2014), Mike Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), LaQuan McDonald (2014), John Crawford III (2014), Walter Scott (2015), Sandra Bland (2015), Yvette Smith (2016), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castile (2016), Brittany Hill (2016), Stephon Clark (2018), Atatiana Jefferson (2019), Breonna Taylor (2020), Ahmaud Arbery (2020), George Floyd (2020), and Tony McCade (2020).

Is 2020 really any different? Will this moment and these protests, which dwarf those in Ferguson and Baltimore, finally lead to lasting, transformative change?

2020 feels different. Three years into the Trump’s presidency, many people are questioning the administration’s willingness to redress the flames of racial injustice. Remember, Trump issued a Muslim ban soon after taking office, and labeled Mexicans “criminals and rapists.” Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” after White supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Trump separated migrant children from their parents and used the coronavirus crisis to suspend the issuance of visas. He systematically obliterated Obama administration protocols designed to ameliorate the disparate policing of Black and Brown bodies. He has diligently worked to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which provides healthcare for millions of economically vulnerable Americans — including those we now consider “essential” but still treat as expendable.

Trump grossly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 100,000 people and disproportionately affected communities of color. He has used racially coded language (“thugs”) to refer to protestors and has parroted White supremacists with statements like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He has threatened to unleash “vicious dogs” and to use military force against those exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest.

Sadly, other governmental institutions have failed to check the president and his allies. When workers in meatpacking facilities protested unsafe conditions, a federal court dismissed their lawsuit. When Wisconsin voters, hoping to stay safe amidst the pandemic, sought additional time to cast absentee ballots, a divided U.S. Supreme Court denied the request — with Justices ironically voting remotely. When Trump ordered the violent removal of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park, in order stage a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Attorney General William Barr and top military brass marched and posed as well. And, critically, through these 1,231 days of Trumpism Senate Republicans have staunchly remained by the President’s side.

So, perhaps 2020 really is different. After three years of unapologetic, in-your-face racism, perpetrated at the highest levels of government, Americans can no longer deny the evidence of their own eyes. They can no longer deny the pervasiveness of structural racism. This recognition is reflected in the cross-racial coalitions taking to the streets. A recent CNN poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe the criminal justice system favors whites over Black people. Even major corporations (including a belated NFL) now seem to understand that “Black Lives Matter.”

So what do we teach our students? We surely don’t have all of the answers but we have settled on some lessons. We will teach our students to press forward, because there is no real alternative. We will teach them to challenge unjust laws because, as Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without demand.” We will inspire them to harness their outrage and energy into new and better policies. We will underscore that when law enforcement chokes the life from a helpless individual, it is past time to question what the law is and who it serves.

We will teach our students these things because if we do not, the stench of racism will continue to choke our nation.

Trina Jones is the Jerome M. Culp Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law. Kimberly Jade Norwood is the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.



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Duke University Opinion and Analysis

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