Bending Toward Justice

Discussions that focused on exposing entrenched racism

Angela Onwuachi-Willig
Angela Onwuachi-Willig

In today’s sociopolitical climate, issues of race and inequality remain searingly current, and events hosted by NYU Law this past year continued to grapple with those topics.

During the 23rd annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society last November, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law, paid tribute to the late Bell, an originator of critical race theory and a visiting professor at NYU Law. Now sponsored by the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, the Bell Lecture series salutes his life and work.

In her remarks, Onwuachi-Willig recounted the pivotal role that Bell and his work played in her own life and career, asserting that Bell’s argument that “racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance” is particularly relevant today. Although they were killed more than a half-century apart, both Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, she said, were young black teenagers targeted in racially tense areas different from the environments where they had grown up. In Sanford, Florida, Martin “was walking in a neighborhood where residents, much like white Mississippians in 1955, were fighting to preserve the whiteness of their neighborhood, or rather the meaning accorded to white spaces,” she said. “The comparison raises questions about how far we have truly come,” Onwuachi-Willig continued, “when past injustices simply seem to emerge in new forms.”

In January, leading experts on race, public interest, and family law criticized the current child welfare system in the inaugural Elie Hirschfeld Symposium on Child Welfare, named in honor of a gift by Elie Hirschfeld ’74 that also established a fellowship at the NYU Law Family Defense Clinic. Panelists included Dorothy Roberts, founding director of the Program on Race, Science, and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, and NYU Law’s Peggy Cooper Davis, John S.R. Shad Professor of Lawyering and Ethics and a former family court judge. The event was moderated by Chris Gottlieb ’97, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic, which co-sponsored the symposium with the Review of Law and Social Change.

Melissa Murray
Melissa Murray and Ta-Nehisi Coates

State welfare agencies and social workers have begun to use predictive analytics—which are based on large data sets of past offenders—to determine the likelihood that a person will commit certain crimes, including child abuse. But the data sets, Roberts said, are drawn from deeply racist data, and current structural inequality and human biases are built into these predictions.

Davis compared the child welfare system to a kind of colonialism “that assumes authority over and supervises and alters the terms of life in a community and in families that had thought of themselves as autonomous…with a presumption of cultural and informational, if not biological, supremacy.” The first step, the panelists agreed, was not reform, but abolishing the current system.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

That same month, Atlantic national correspondent and celebrated author Ta-Nehisi Coates came to the Law School for a conversation with Professor Melissa Murray that was hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice. Coates, whose writing has chronicled and analyzed systemic injustices, said that the role of journalists is to open readers’ eyes to issues they might not have experienced viscerally themselves. “The power of journalism is how it can turn ideas into reality,” he said. “It can confront you with the way to make you realize something that maybe you kind of knew as an idea, or as a notion, but do not understand as a reality.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Coates also explained why he started writing for the Black Panther comic book series, the basis for a 2018 movie. “Those Marvel movies are defining for people who is going to be human, and who is not,” he said. “So if you give me the opportunity to author some of the source material for that…why would I not take that?” 

Posted September 4, 2019