Dear Georgetown University Law Center,
Your silence is suffocating. We, students of color, cannot breathe. At Georgetown University Law Center (GULC), law students of color are underserved, unacknowledged, and unable to seek relief from our institution of legal education.
Grand juries throughout the nation have recently shown that non-indictments of predominantly White police officers for the slaughter of predominantly Black and Brown victims are the “new” reality America is just becoming widely cognizant of. From August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was shot to death and left on a Missouri street for four and a half hours, until the present day, GULC students of color have been deeply affected, critically active, and emotionally damaged by these events because for us, America’s racial narrative is not new. Ferguson is not new. But the international outcry against the intersection of racialized, cavalier policing and the legal deference that allows the practice to occur is something new.
“Law is but the means, Justice is the end.”
That is the creed, the very motto of Georgetown University Law Center.
But GULC students of color struggle to grasp at the “surreality” of our role as change agents of Justice; we continually lose hope in our study of the law because we attend a legal institution that has neither openly acknowledged or denounced the current legal (in)justice system that oppresses Black and Brown people.
We write to you, GULC Administration, Faculty, Staff, and Students, because unlike so many of you, we cannot afford the luxury and privilege of measured silence. In fact, we have not been silent. We have organized and protested on campus, we have distributed educational flyers in classrooms, we have marched in the streets of Washington, D.C., and we have consistently asked our peers, “Which side are you on?”
Georgetown University President John DeGioia addressed Michael Brown’s murder in a brief email to all Georgetown students, and invited students to the Main Campus to attend a collaborative, heavily co-sponsored, and extremely well attended event on August 28, 2014. Nonetheless, Georgetown University Law Center, the most prestigious and highly-ranked law school in the nation’s capital, a law school placed within a city with a significant (and before systematic gentrification, predominant) population of people of color, has remained silent on the most pertinent recent legal event gaining national and international attention.
What does that persistent silence tell us, as law students of color, about our agency, our value, and our role at GULC?
GULC’s silence hierarchizes humanity. It denies us respect. And it takes a cursory, shallow glance at what the rest of the nation is viewing in-depth. Many of us face a specific existential crisis as Black law students. We are a conundrum, a puzzle that has no discernible answer. We are taught at GULC to revere the law, to learn its intricacies and its merits, to regard its ever-flowing logic and seamless rationality, to gently question its application and its “rightness”, and to uphold the GULC creed…but when faced with issues like police brutality, the ever-climbing and disproportional conviction rates of Black and Brown men and women, the over-criminalization of adolescent Black and Brown behavior, the uneven application of drug laws, and so on, we constantly ask ourselves:
“Why are we trying to wield tools that were never meant to fit our hands?”
There are but precious few students of color on GULC’s campus and in GULC’s classrooms. We face undue and unjust pressure to not only speak for and represent our communities, but also to prove that we indeed belong at GULC: that we objectively earned our way here; that we are more than just hand-picked, articulate, and acceptable puppets to showcase on a GULC Diversity brochure; to point out and defend ourselves from racial micro- and macro-aggressions in the classroom from professors and classmates alike; and to speak up when students blatantly disrespect the precious few GULC professors of color. We may take courses in which we are never called on: some of us remain unseen. Invisible. Many of us are consistently called the wrong name, or the name of another person of color in the same class. These are commonplace experiences for people of color in the legal Ivory Tower.
We, as GULC students of color, are donning ten different hats while we sit in our seats.
We have ten different tasks to accomplish when we walk through any classroom door.
Many of our classmates are often wearing just one hat; many of our classmates have but one task: to learn how to practice law. And that, in and of itself, is a privilege unavailable to law students of color that GULC does nothing to address, combat, or even acknowledge.
What has GULC done, or is GULC willing to do, to address the crises its students of color face?
GULC took approximately four months to launch any type of organized response to the nationwide protests in the wake of the events in Ferguson, MO despite the increasing media coverage and public outcry it generated. Let us reiterate: GULC spent four months in silence, and has only just recently launched a purely internal response.
On December 3, 2014 GULC threw together a panel titled, “A Conversation About Ferguson.” The event’s attendance, choice of panelists (Professors Paul Butler, Abbe Smith, Anthony Cook, Michael Seidman, and Dr. Marcia Chatelain were masterful), and conversational content are to be applauded. Nonetheless, we found the following problematic:
- The initial location of the panel: McDonough Hall, Room 156, a decrepit classroom in the bowels of the oldest building on campus. A full first year section cannot fit in this type of classroom. Yet this venue was chosen over Hart Auditorium, or the Sports & Fitness Center Lobby, or the Hotung International Law Building: venues oft used for the most high-profile, important events on campus. This “Conversation About Ferguson” should have been deemed worthy of such a venue. The initial location of the panel showed GULC’s low priority and low expected turnout for an event of such monumental importance.
- The lack of consultation with student organizations: The Black Law Students Association (BLSA) was listed as a co-sponsor for the event, its name plastered boldly on the event’s flyers. To our knowledge, no BLSA member was specifically consulted or used as a resource to determine the structure or content of the event—the Black student voice was not heard at the event geared towards addressing the killing of Black and Brown people nationwide. This shows us that BLSA’s name is important, but not its members’ substantive input. Additionally, to our knowledge, no other student affinity group was consulted or even listed on the flyer, despite the presence of more than a handful of diverse student organizations actively participating in and contributing to GULC campus life.
- The lack of long-running publicity for the event: The event was advertised via flyers lazily hung in random locations in McDonough Hall and accompanied by no more than two emails from the Office of Student Life and the Campus Broadcast. The emails were sent ONE DAY before the event took place. This event is now conveniently featured on the “Web Stories” subsection of Georgetown Law’s “News” webpage, a page that is not immediately visible on the Law Center’s home page.
GULC has haphazardly attempted to address the lack of racial diversity in the admissions process, but remains tone deaf to the express concerns of students of color.
After a number of predominantly Black law students attended a clandestine admissions meeting with Dean of Admissions Andy Cornblatt on December 3, 2014, we are not encouraged as to GULC’s capacity to substantively prioritize admittance and enrollment of students of color.
- The meeting lacked substance, did not disseminate concrete statistics, and many of our most pressing questions (regarding financial aid and travel stipends for admitted minority students to conduct campus visits) went unanswered or were brusquely brushed off. We—students of color—are tasked with recruiting and convincing students of color to attend GULC, told to “sell” GULC, when we truthfully do not believe we have much more to “sell” than just buzzwords.
- The meeting took place less than an hour after the public announcement of the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s murderer. Thus, while being told that our services are desperately needed to draw students of color to GULC, we were not once asked whether the campus atmosphere at GULC is one that could presently attract students of color.
- This initial meeting was primarily geared towards Black students. An identical meeting was hosted with primarily Latino/a students a few days later, during which the very same meaningless rhetoric was spouted to those students–the message was loud and clear:
GULC hopes to increase its ‘diversity’ numbers, to enroll students of color who ‘check the box,’ and to report these ‘achievements’ to national outlets. Artificially inflating the number of students of color seems more important to GULC than working actively to enhance the experiences of those students of color who choose to enroll. GULC feels no pressure, heeds no onus to create a community for a meaningfully diverse student body to thrive, thus organically reproducing such an environment for future students.
Requests by individual students of color to assist GULC Administration in creating a mandatory first-year diversity orientation have gone unheeded.
Student-staff meetings were held, data was compiled and submitted, but no further contact or action was taken. A fresh crop of 1Ls entered GULC without understanding the standards of civil diversity and intellectual inclusion GULC purports to endorse. Further, students of color have no insight into GULC’s faculty diversity training, and experience a significant portion of our alienating experiences at the hands of faculty, in the classroom, or during office hours.
GULC has failed its students of color on an academic level.
Students of color report instances in which they openly seek academic assistance, express worry about their grades or exam techniques, and are met with empty, placating reassurances tinged with condescension. We attribute these instances to the subconscious lowered achievement expectations GULC Administration manifests towards its students of color.
GULC law students of color and allies demand the following from Administration, Faculty, and Staff:
- PUBLICLY ADDRESS THE ISSUE: We demand a public, school-wide statement from Deans William Treanor and Mitchell Bailin on behalf of the GULC community, based on the statements published by peer legal institutions: specifically New York University School of Law, Stanford Law School, University of California at Berkeley Law School, and Yale Law School. No administrator of consequence has addressed or approached any of GULC’s affinity groups to offer their concern, solidarity, or support services.
- PROVIDE IMMEDIATE INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT: We demand specific, targeted mental health resources, meditation counselors, or the service of chaplains, rabbis, or other religious persons to assist us in coping with the violence we witness outside of the halls of GULC every day. We must be permanently provided with safe spaces on campus in which to deconstruct our trauma as students of color. These resources should be provided in conjunction with Georgetown Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS).
- GRANT EXAM EXTENSIONS: We demand that students who have been deeply and psychologically affected by recent events be provided the option, on an individual basis, to defer or postpone Fall semester exams according to individual need. The Exam Relief Policies set forth in the 2014-2015 Student Handbook of Academic Policies allows for exam relief in the wake of “extraordinary cause” and “extraordinary circumstances.” We expect GULC Administration to consider exam relief requests under the presumption of individual students’ good faith and sound discretion. The concerns voiced in this letter rise to, and in fact exceed, the level of extraordinary circumstances.
- CENTRALIZE FIRST-YEAR DIVERSITY ORIENTATION: We demand that our numerous past requests for a targeted diversity orientation program at GULC be heeded. This is one of GULC Administration’s sorest oversights. Every year, the same preventable issues prevail in every 1L section at GULC, and GULC has taken no actionable steps to curtail problems that could be preempted by a meaningful, topical diversity orientation program. Diversity should not just be a buzzword at GULC. It is not, but it must be, a meaningful reality.
- PRIORITIZE FACULTY DIVERSITY RETRAINING: We demand to attend and take part in the GULC Faculty Retreat hosted in February 2015, during which this coalition’s best practices suggestions and testimonies will be considered thoroughly during a discussion about faculty micro-aggressions against students of color. From exam fact patterns to in-class hypotheticals, GULC faculty has often been the perpetrator of racial micro- and macro-aggressions against its law students of color. We must be intimately involved in the diversity retraining of GULC faculty.
- INCREASE MEANINGFUL STUDENT PARTICIPATION IN DIVERSITY RECRUITING: We demand that GULC affinity groups on campus be given full access to application rates and acceptance rates of students of color, be armed with a reasonable and transparent understanding of the financial aid determination process, and be heavily and meaningfully involved and informed in the official GULC recruitment process. We should not have to lie to recruits and admitted students of color about what their experience at GULC will be like.
Students from peer institutions are demanding similar action items from their respective administrations. Most notably, the Coalition at Columbia Law voiced its concerns on December 6, 2014. To borrow from their courageous open letter:
“Our trauma will be present with us on exam day, our trauma is inhibiting us from sleeping at night, and our trauma is ever-present among the words in our textbooks. Moreover, the violence that the law has done to Mike Brown and now Eric Garner is a legal violence that affects and implicates us all. We are now asked to use the same legal maneuvers and language on our exams this Monday that [are] used to deny justice to so many Black and Brown bodies. In being asked to prepare for and take our exams in this moment, we are being asked to perform incredible acts of disassociation that have led us to question our place in this school community and the legal community at large.
We write to you not only from a place of love and concern for ourselves, but also from a place of care and concern for our institution. We maintain some semblance of hope that our institution can be better; indeed, if we did not, we would not be so invested as community leaders. However, we know that [the Georgetown University Law Center] will not be better until its faculty and administration centralize the needs of its students of color. Accepting and matriculating students of color is not enough; we must also adopt and continue to reinvent strategies to make us feel at home here.
We feel that the institution we have worked hard to improve is failing us. Administrators at our peer institutions have reached out, unprompted, to students of color to acknowledge the hurt that many of their students are currently experiencing. We have yet to see that sort of response from our school community and it has left us feeling further devalued and isolated.”
See EMERGENCY ACTION, Columbia Law Coalition (Dec. 6, 2014), https://columbialawcoalition.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/emergency-action-the-coalition-of-affinity-group-student-leaders-and-students-of-color/)
We, students of color at GULC, echo these sentiments. We charge you, GULC, to express your solidarity with, and support of, your law students of color. We charge you to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter. Work with us to ensure that law is but the means, Justice is the end.
A Coalition of Students of Color at Georgetown University Law Center
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
GULC students of color & allies staged a “Die-In” in October of 2014, specifically discussing the death of Michael Brown. This protest received no acknowledgement from GULC Administration. View the protest here: