Thirty years ago, I was a black female student in a white law school in
the deep South, part of that first wave of integration determined to change
Many things did change, the law and lawyers among them. Yet, when reading about the controversy over white University of Texas law students who threw a "Ghetto Fabulous" party, I found myself equal parts despairing and outraged about what hasn't changed.
Not even three months into their first year of study, these aspiring lawyers,
perhaps so stressed by the rigors of their studies, went looking for a way to
chill. And what did the cream of Texas' intellectual crop come up with? A
party mocking the black and brown urban poor -- complete with 40-ounce cans of
malt liquor, fake guns, "ethnic" names, do-rags, jeweled grills on their front
teeth, and loud jewelry.
Fully tricked out, UT's best and brightest young white adults didn't hesitate to
use overtly racist images and behavior for a bit of fun and frivolity. Not
surprisingly, some of the black and brown law students weren't so happy when photos of
the party showed up on the Internet, and this private party for white folks
suddenly became very public.
Given that these are law students, let's ask a legal-style question: What did
these partygoers know, or what should they have known, about their own
motivations and the consequences of their actions?
When defendants are on trial for harm caused by their actions, the
legal standard is simple: Did the defendant know, or should s/he have known,
that what they did would cause the harm in question?
So, did these white men and women lawyers-in-training know, or should they have
known, that their cavorting was stunningly racist and profoundly offensive?
I am a retired member of the Massachusetts and Texas bars. During my
decade plus of law practice, I was an Assistant Attorney General in Boston
and Dallas. I have a law degree from the University of Florida and a graduate law degree from Harvard and I was born and raised in an urban ghetto. So I personally know not only the law, but also how white supremacy works in the ghettoes of cities and of elite law schools.
So my answer to both questions is yes. They should have known and they did.
Despite the UT law dean's repeated reference to his law students as "these kids," they are not children. They are grownup college graduates. Given that they beat out the competition, we also can assume they are not stupid.
So, how is it possible for them to be, as Dean Larry Sager described them in a
television news interview, "innocent of racial motivation" and merely "guilty of
If these best-and-brightest did not know that their own motivations and behavior
were racist and offensive, what does this tell us about how they have been
educated; about how they have been prepared to be leaders
in the world? Who failed them so abysmally in teaching them to live, work, and
love in a world where most people do not look, think, talk, or act like them?
If these future leaders of our state and nation really didn't know, shouldn't
they have known? And whose responsibility was it to raise them properly?
Who is accountable for producing this next generation of lawyers who have become
adults steeped in such racial oblivion that they have no sense or sensibility
about their own profoundly offensive and racist behavior? Their grandparents?
Parents? Other relatives? Teachers? College professors? Religious leaders?
Friends and colleagues? Who failed them and, by extension, the rest of us?
Do law school administrators and fellow students who created and sustain the law
school environment that invites this kind of behavior, know what they are doing?
In 30 years, my eyes have seen laws change. But the hearts and minds displayed in these staged acts of racial assault reveal a breathtaking, even heartbreaking, wall of denial, contempt, and cowardice.
I believe the UT law students know exactly what they did. I believe the law school and
university administrators know the same. Both are failures.
There is another saying in the law: Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.
I rest my case.