With the debate over critical race theory and education raging in parts of the U.S., one law school has just required a new course on race’s enduring impact on the U.S. justice system.
This fall, Roger Williams University School of Law will become one of only a few U.S. institutions to make students take a course, “Race & the Foundations of American Law,” as part of its core legal curriculum.
“Offering this course aligns perfectly with our institution’s larger social justice mission,” law school Dean Gregory W. Bowman said. “It is something we needed to do, something transformative, something that will better equip our graduates to work within the legal system to create a world that is more equitable for all.”
The course, which was piloted as a spring 2021 elective, will provide a historical overview and a current assessment of the role race has played in American law and the fast-changing legal landscape. It will also “provide critical analytic tools students can bring to all aspects of their legal education and future practice,” and cover often-overlooked perspectives on race, the university says.
Roger Williams Law adopted its Strategic Plan for Diversity & Inclusion in 2017 as students, particularly members of the school’s chapter of the National Black Law Students Association (BLSA), urged the institutions to further their commitment.
“Race & the Foundations of American Law” course description:
“This course will provide both a historical overview and a current assessment of how race has played a role in American law and provide critical analytic tools students can bring to all aspects of their legal education and future practice. The course will examine the ways in which creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy, benefiting those deemed white, has influenced the development of American law. The roles white supremacy and racial hierarchy play in current systems will also be covered. The operation and racial implications of systems such as legal education and the legal profession, the criminal system, immigration, the housing market, and public education will be addressed. Finally, the course will take a critical look at current anti-racist approaches and tactics and explore ways in which unjust/or discriminatory systems can be dismantled.”
“In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, BLSA students told us that we needed to do more to help educate all students about the ways in which the legal system perpetuates racial hierarchies,” said professor Jared Goldstein, the associate dean for academic affairs. “The faculty agreed that we should create a required course on race and the law, one that every student would take. Making this change will help us carry out the mission we have long been dedicated to.”
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Meanwhile, the American Bar Association is considering changes to its accreditation process to require classes that explore the role of the law in creating and sustaining existing power structures, Bowman said.
Goldstein explained that the class—which will be a required part of the second-year curriculum—provides a service to students by introducing them to the real world in which American law has evolved.
The spring pilot was praised by students, who called it the most eye-opening class they’d ever taken. “When the course started, I thought I knew a lot more than I did because I am African-American myself. I thought I had a good grasp of how the law intersects with African-American issues and history because I grew up with it,” said Brooklyn Crockton, a rising third-year law student from Rochester, New York. “But I’d say about 90% of the course content was totally new to me—and I was an Africana Studies minor, too.”
Dominick Gargano, a third-year RWU Law student from Morristown, N.J., said that even though he is a white male, he felt no sense of “indoctrination.” “What we were really studying in this class is history, factual information,” he said. “It’s not a ‘version’ of something or an interpretation. We’re doing what we do in every other law class: looking at the facts. And you deal with that information, and then you start to think about what we can do to make things better.”
The course may be challenging for some students, Crockton added. “I think it’s going to make people very uncomfortable,” Crockton said, “but I also think it’s important that we don’t shy away or back down from that challenge.”