Race, Racism, and the Law is a first-of-its-kind required course among top law schools
By Leslie Ridgeway
The racial reckoning of 2020, from the Movement for Black Lives to the ravages of COVID-19, brought home to the USC Gould School of Law the continuing salience of race in the legal system and in society. Faculty, students and administrators joined together to take concrete anti-racist actions in the law school community. As a centerpiece of that effort, the USC Gould School has developed Race, Racism and the Law, a unique required course for JD students, starting next academic year, for the Class of 2024.
“The Black Lives Matter protests as well as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others all had an impact on our students and faculty. This moment requires that we ask about our obligations to the legal community, to society, and to the world writ large,” says Professor and Vice Dean Franita Tolson, who co-chaired the Academic Affairs subcommittee charged with developing the course. “The course will help students recognize that their obligation as lawyers, regardless of their specialty, is to understand that law does not always operate equally – that race is an enduring part of the legal profession and our everyday lives.”
USC Gould is the first of the top 25 law schools in the nation to add a required course on race and racism to its curriculum.
“It’s nice to be a trailblazer,” says Professor Ariela Gross, who also co-chaired the subcommittee. “A lot of schools are considering this. Colleagues at many other law schools have been contacting me because they are coming up with proposals. I won’t be surprised to see other schools making announcements about similar courses in the spring.”
Support for the course reached a critical mass in June 2020, when Professor Camille Gear Rich wrote a memo advocating for a mandatory course on race and the law. Gross and other professors, including Stephen Rich and Sam Erman, were also working on a proposal for such a course during the prior year. An advisory committee was subsequently formed to study adding the course to the mandatory curriculum.
Student involvement drives course development
Student involvement was key to the course’s formation. The Student Bar Association nominated 2L Martina Fouquet, a member of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and an outspoken participant in school-wide Zoom conversations about systemic racism over the summer, to serve as student representative on the subcommittee. Fouquet was instrumental in drafting the proposal for the course, and 3L Katie Hill, the Academic Affairs Committee student representative, collected feedback from Student Bar Association representatives in all classes.
The new course adds an important and necessary dimension to law school education, Fouquet says.
“It is possible, due to the rigor of law school, to graduate without a core understanding of the social context informing why laws are the way they are,” she says. “First and foremost, I hope this course helps students understand the historical context of race and the law … how a law that might seem race neutral can have an application that is racially skewed.”
Other students and faculty expressed enthusiasm for the course. Tatum Rosenfeld, Class of 2021, wrote that the course presented Gould “the opportunity to put words into action, to train transformative leaders.”
|Professor Ariela Gross, Gould 2L Martina Fouquet, Professor and Vice Dean Franita Tolson and Professor Camille Gear Rich helped to develop Race, Racism and the Law.|
Additional modules on race and law part of recommendation
Race, Racism and the Law joins a variety of electives at Gould that are focused on race, including Critical Race Theory, Racial Ambiguity Blues and Race and Gender in the Law. To further strengthen Gould’s curriculum on race, the subcommittee also recommended an optional one-credit yearlong offering on race and law that includes 10 topical modules in the first year of law school.
This offering closely tracks the proposal offered by Gear Rich in her June memo. “Many first year students are eager to start discussion of these topics early. The modular course will focus on foundational issues in the study of race that will greatly enrich the insights they bring to their other classes,” Gear Rich says.
Discussions about the race, racism and law curriculum gained steam in the fall as the proposal was vetted by the Academic Affairs Committee, the Student Bar Association, and Gould affinity groups including BLSA, the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, Latino Law Students Association, Middle Eastern and North African Law Student Association, South Asian Law Student Association, Womxn of Color Collective and OUTLaw, all of which signed a statement in support of the course. They wrote, “Today’s law students are future judges, attorney generals, and law firm partners. The information they learn today about race and the law will be instrumental in ensuring they are equipped for all challenges they confront in the future.”
Gross praised the student involvement in developing and championing the course.
“I was very moved by the students,” she says. “This shows that what started this summer and the conversations afterward have affected so many of them. Our students really stepped up to advocate in a professional, passionate way. They’re good lawyers.”
A number of faculty are interested in teaching the course, which will be first offered as an elective in spring 2022, Gross says.
Dean Andrew Guzman, in a memo to the Gould community, highlighted the national events that underscore the imperative of educating law school students on the role of race in the law.
“From the COVID-19 pandemic, with its racially disparate impact, to the nationwide uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to racialized policing and criminal justice, to the recent national election that featured racialized appeals by election officials as well as racially disparate voting patterns, race continues to be a dominant theme in American life,” he said.
Tolson points to the “awesome responsibility” lawyers have to deepen their understanding of the legal structures and institutions of law in order to make the system more equitable. She cites legal vanguards such as Associate Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as models, noting that they committed themselves to the courageous work of challenging the status quo. “At Gould, we are now arming our students with the tools to do the same,” she says.
“At the time (Marshall and Ginsberg) practiced law, segregation was the law of land and a woman could be controlled by her husband,” Tolson adds. “If we are training people to implement the law as is, then this class is unnecessary. But if we are training people to change the world, this class is an important part of that process.”