Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law launch features trio of leaders in civil rights law

The launch of NYU Law’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law on February 27 drew a crowd that filled Tishman Auditorium as well as two overflow rooms to hear a wide-ranging conversation about issues at the intersection of law, civil rights activism, and socioeconomic ills. The discussion featured Loretta Lynch, former attorney general of the United States; Sherrilyn Ifill ’87, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF); and Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

In his welcoming remarks, Dean Trevor Morrison spoke to the factors that had attracted so many people to the event. “The launch of this center comes at a time of increased national dialogue and justified increased national concern about issues implicating race and inequality in our criminal justice system, in our legal system more broadly, in our society,” said Morrison. “None of these issues are new, but all of them have a renewed urgency today. The Law School is deeply proud to be continuing the leadership position that we have staked out through our faculty, through our students, through our distinguished graduates on these issues for many years.” In that vein, he announced that the annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society, first delivered at NYU Law in 1995, would have a permanent home within the new center.

Anthony ThompsonIntroducing the panel, Professor of Clinical Law Anthony Thompson, the center’s faculty director, gave his sense of the national mood. “We’re experiencing a steady and dangerous marginalization of immigrants, people of color, and the poor,” he said. “We’re witnessing an uptick in hate crimes and hate speech…. We’re here to reorient a country that seems to have lost its way.”

In the context of that polarized environment, Ifill expressed pride in being an NYU Law alumna. “NYU spoke directly to the reason that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from the time I was eight years old. It was a culture that recognized the importance, the power, the nobility of being a civil rights lawyer and nurtured that.” She also lamented “the normalization of things that had been forbidden,” adding, “The velvet rope has been removed from what used to be the shame of being racist, of being misogynistic.”

Loretta LynchLynch, under whose leadership the Department of Justice pursued some of former president Barack Obama’s most progressive ideals, considered the newly elevated importance of non-governmental entities such as LDF and the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law in the current political climate. “A lot of things that so many of us fought for are being deliberately and actively rolled back, pushed back, trampled on,” she said. “But what you’re really seeing, which we have not seen in 50 years, is the peeling away of the role of government, away from protecting the disenfranchised, away from speaking to those who don’t have a voice, away from lifting up people who’ve been pushed down.” She cited voter ID laws and transgender rights as examples.

Bryan StevensonStevenson stressed the importance of story as a potent tool alongside the law. The more progressive side, Stevenson argued, had lost the “narrative battle” going back all the way to genocide committed by white settlers against Native Americans. That pattern continued, he said, through slavery and post-Civil War racial inequality, the latter manifested in white supremacy, mass lynchings, and Jim Crow: “Those who had perpetrated that terrorism and violence won the narrative war. They were never held accountable…. Now we’re living at a time where that thriving narrative of racial difference, that ideology of white preference, has manifested itself, and now we’re dealing with the consequences of that.”

In response to Thompson’s asking how to make productive dialogue on racial equality a national conversation, Lynch continued Stevenson’s thoughts about narratives, describing the pervasive idea of “a limited slice of equality being taken from one group to the benefit of another who has not worked for it.” One way to combat it, she suggested, was to highlight the economic harms of prejudice. “The cost of racism in this society to everyone—the literal dollar cost of racism to GDP—is huge.” Pointing to fiscal consequences, Lynch said, has helped bridge left and right in areas such as criminal justice reform.

Sherrilyn Ifill '87Ifill expressed concern, however, about focusing too much on economic incentives. “It makes our pursuit of justice and equality about pragmatism and not about moral rights or wrongs or justice or the rule of law or the things that I think have the real staying power, because people are remaking calculations all the time,” she said. “On the other hand, I do agree with you that dealing with the economics of it is something that we have also failed to do, and frankly, it’s part of the narrative.” Ifill described huge expenditures to build a white middle class after World War II, to the exclusion of other groups: “We have the power, with investments, to make the society we want to make.”

All three panelists extolled the importance of local grassroots efforts, whether in seeking office or working to make schools and police forces more responsive to citizens, and touched on encouraging successes. Turning to how to move forward, Ifill invoked the importance of deriving meaning from the past. “Somebody somewhere in your line had to overcome poverty or war or famine or devastation or terrible health or injustice,” she said, “and I think our disconnection from those stories, our disconnection from understanding that history, is so deep that we sometimes think we can’t survive what we can survive.”

For Stevenson, mindset was the key. “You have to see hopelessness as a kind of toxin that will kill your ability to make a difference. And the truth is, you’re either hopeful, working toward justice, or you’re the problem. There’s nothing in between.” And Lynch appealed to the future lawyers in the room to take up the cause of equality. “This is hard work,” she said. “It has always been hard work, but it is the best work that you will ever do, the work of bending your shoulder and making this world a little bit better.”

Posted March 8, 2017