Law in Contemporary Society

The Illusion of Diversity and the Role of the Ethnic Interest Group

-- By YoungKim - 15 Apr 2009

Driven by ranking methodologies that score schools based on the amount of minorities that matriculate, law schools have been working furiously to recruit students of color into their ranks.

  • I think this is actually false. In this instance, I think the rankings are absolutely irrelevant. I believe there is a consensus among the faculties of leading law schools that it is in their social and organizational interests to draw students from all over the world and from every part of our society. I think if the ranking structures changed tomorrow, that would not change at all.

Special ‘diversity’ initiatives are crafted to publicize retention efforts and emphasize the value of diversity in a dynamically evolving, ‘global’ legal profession.

  • This stuff is claptrap, I will grant you, but the irony of the essay from my point of view is that the political structures you are praising have as much to do with the adoption of this form of diversityspeak as the timid and beleaguered administrators themselves.

Though the ‘advantages’ that come with exposure to brown, black and yellow faces in an American legal industry that is actually resistant to globalization seem dubious, schools openly tout the idea that a more diverse student body will lead to divergent viewpoints toward the law.

  • Not too surprising, unless you uncritically and reflexively identify the school with the industry, which I am trying to teach you not to do.

These differences in turn will 1. enrich the degree and scope of collaboration across the student body, 2. foster more varied and nuanced approaches to the law, and 3. provide opportunities for students to build lasting connections with, and learn from, those significantly different from themselves. The admissions page of one law school, for example, describes its commitment to diversity as such:

Exposure to diverse ideas and viewpoints forces students to think critically about their own beliefs — to question and challenge them. Capital Law School creates a diverse and supportive environment where the exchange of ideas is free-flowing and valued.

  • But people's ability to talk nonsense has never been successfully restrained anywhere about anything. So what conclusion does the existence of quotable nonsense entail?

However, the supposed gains to be achieved from these diversity initiatives often go unrealized in an educational model that suppresses difference, demands conformity, and prevents students from incorporating their cultural backgrounds as they engage and study the law.

  • Such a model would have many failings as a pedagogy, and there are a plethora of reasons to abandon it.

Students of color face additional pressures to assimilate in an institution administered primarily by upper-class whites and a student community whose norms and habits are more reflective of their white peers.

  • Similarly, there are many overlapping reasons to train people to avoid these conformist, traditionalist, white-dominated, upper-class organizations. We're trying to do that here, and you appear in that context to be trying to figure out how one particularism can be used to justify what a broad coalition can adopt for a variety of equally-compelling reasons.

The Diversity We Get

Despite a steady influx of minorities, a cursory examination of the law school community reveals anything but a place where the ‘exchange of ideas’ is dynamic and ‘free flowing’. Formulaic methods of teaching, uniformity in subject material and a grading system that pits students competitively against each other rather than collaboratively with each other creates a homogenous learning experience, flattening the very differences that make students of color valuable in the first place. The Socratic Method, which supposedly improves ‘critical lawyering skills,’ provides minimal room for alternative viewpoints and encourages tautological argumentation that is staged, uncreative and rigidly constrained. Exams are graded according to a rubric designed not for innovative thought but for cost-effective administration. Moreover, an exhaustive 1L workload forces students to spend the majority of their time either in the law school or studying, creating an insulated learning environment that minimizes engagement and thoughtful collaboration with other students. Not surprisingly, the average law student receives a streamlined and uniform legal education conspicuously lacking in diversity. The familiar saying of “1L year they break you, 2L year they work you, 3L year they bore you” rings true for nearly everyone.

  • If so, then it appears to me that the system requires change for a variety of reasons, which it would not require one to have any particular theory about diversity or its value to hold in sufficient density to make the direction of reform a matter of consensus.

The most problematic feature about law school, though, is that it leaves no room for students to engage their own unique backgrounds as valuable referents in their study of the law.

  • But no, that wouldn't be good enough. Your particular concern amidst all the other things wrong with the mode of education you've described above should be acknowledged as the most important, even more important than everything else that is wrong for everyone else. Otherwise, presumably, the guy you could be vehemently agreeing with and doing something alongside to change both of your conditions of life, becomes wrong, perhaps is even an adversary. That's how political coalitions are fractured. The frequency with which they fracture along this potential line of division--between those seeking social liberation for all and those seeking an end to discrimination against some--explains why ruling classes find minority-rights movements so useful in splitting opposition and eliminating the threat of real revolution.

With the exception of this course, students spend most of their time reading court opinions, policy articles and fact patterns that have little relevance to them as individuals. Amidst the outlining, note-taking and preparation for exams, one’s cultural uniqueness quickly becomes irrelevant. The situation is particularly problematic for students of color as they are forced to shelve their cultural identities in an institution administered primarily by wealthy whites and a student community whose norms and behavior more closely approximate those of their white peers. Not surprisingly, many students of color speak of having to operate within two different worlds – the person they are within the comforts of a support network (assuming one exists) and the person they are outside of it.

  • So do working-class "uncolored" students, if you listen to what they have to say. So did Jews and European "uncolored" Catholics until the middle of last century. Perhaps a little more historical perspective would permit a clearer exposition of and therefore a clearer answer to the objection that you're particularizing the general struggle along an axis of constructed identity, thus dissipating the unity that would enable triumph?

What’s the Solution?

All of this criticism, of course, begs the essential question – how does one create a learning environment that actually makes diversity relevant in a meaningful way?

  • No, this criticism begs the essential question of how to teach well by confusing it, and the equally essential question of how to grow up to make justice, with the almost equally essential question of how to deal with particular resentments among the parties whom injustice aggrieves.

While admissions programs geared towards recruiting more students of color might seem like the ideal solution, such policies will not engender greater diversity so long as students’ stories, values and interests have no relevance to their academic lives.

  • I don't know whether this statement is true; probably it isn't. But it seems to me completely irrelevant. You needed to show a line of argument to which this step would be relevant.

Also, given how entrenched the current law school model has become (as well as the political and private interests attached to it), it is not likely that the administration will make any changes to encourage students to more actively engage their cultural backgrounds.

  • What happens in classes is about teaching. Why are you talking about some so-called "administration"?

It is not clear to me, moreover, whether such a duty should even lie with the school, whose primary function is to bestow professional skills to future attorneys. One need only guess as to how effective administration-led events such as ‘Asian Heritage Week’ would be at promoting actual diversity.

  • I don't have enough experience with Asian Heritage Week to know. I would expect any such thing to be pretty much total bullshit, even if "Asian" didn't strike me as a pretty idiotic category, given that what Finnish and Israeli and Korean and Sinhalese and Han and Abkhaz and Kurdish and Persian and Russian and Keralite and Singaporean persons have in common that also distinguishes them from everyone else on earth is basically impossible to name. But if we are trying to use our intelligence to devise better means of helping people grow up to become wise and courageous in the making of justice, why would we ever spend a nanosecond talking about such tripe?

A Possibility

Enter the Ethnic Student Organization. While groups such as APALSA and BLSA have been derided for balkanizing the student community and reinforcing racial divisions, they represent easily accessible support networks from which students of color can re-connect with and preserve their ‘cultural selves’. Such organizations prove immensely valuable in helping students of color resist the pressures of conformity and retain a sense of community, reinforcing the shared stories and values that make them diverse in the first place.

  • Sure. But what is that an argument about? Has someone suggested disestablishing or otherwise interfering with such groups, either because they are not useful support networks or for any other reason? If someone has been using derision, in particular on the basis that such organizations reinforce division, and if you really think there is something to be gained by arguing with fools, you can meet the derision, directly, with cogent argument. But this is not that argument, and I see no reason for it to be here at all.

Moreover, such groups provide critical opportunities for minorities to make their cultural identities meaningful in a way that the study of law does not. For example, students of color often spearhead initiatives that are specific to their respective communities, thus engaging their backgrounds directly as they advance their interests within the law.

  • What's that an example of? That would most certainly happen whether there were identity organizations around or not.

Such efforts demonstrate to students that their ethnic backgrounds are both relevant and even advantageous as they evolve into future attorneys. In turn, students will likely develop alternative viewpoints and career interests as they progress through law school, a process which other students, faculty and administrators all stand to benefit from in the long run.

  • Likely? That judgment, in the paper's conclusion, doesn't have any predicate: nothing you've said makes the outcome likely. You haven't adduced any data or offered any reason; it's just an announcement. If that's what thinking about teaching requires, just making up likelihoods, it's really hard to figure out why everyone is getting it so wrong.

  • It seems to me you've made a powerful argument against your thesis. You've shown pretty clearly, I think, that the prescription for changing how we teach is pretty much the same whether you're a member of the "uncolored" population or not. The consequences of that demonstration it seems to be your fixed purpose not to be caught recognizing.


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r9 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:15:33 - IanSullivan
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