Collective Action

Amid a national reckoning, the NYU Law community works to advance issues of equity and racial justice through many avenues.


In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin sparked protests nationwide and forced a renewed conversation on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. “We must pledge to do more as individuals and as a community,” wrote Dean Trevor Morrison in a message to the Law School following Floyd’s death. “Change will not come easily, but problems of criminal justice, racial justice, and fair policing are deep societal problems that demand attention. As lawyers, professors, students, and citizens of the world, we all have both an opportunity and an obligation to seek solutions.”

At NYU Law, faculty, staff, students, and alumni responded to that call with immediate steps to diversify and improve the Law School’s climate, building upon the school’s history as a leader in issues of racial justice. “While we did not anticipate that in the middle of a global health crisis, we would spend last summer gripped by the horrific images of George Floyd being murdered, last summer certainly wasn’t the first time the school has thought about systemic oppression, race, the tremendous work that must be done to address the injustices in our systems, and the acute ways they affect the most marginalized among us,” says Dean of Students and Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Lindsay Kendrick. “NYU Law places enormous value on being a community committed to diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging.”

The examples of advocacy, litigation, and scholarship that are explored below highlight the work the NYU Law community is doing to mitigate the impact of systemic racism. “We have a student body that is really committed to doing good and helping achieve reform,” says Vice Dean, Professor of Clinical Law, and Director of Clinical and Advocacy Programs Randy Hertz. Citing the Law School’s centers, clinical programs, and internships, he adds, “And we have created a number of different avenues for them to be able to do that at various points in the law school years.”

Curriculum and Scholarship

In August 2020, the Law School announced three new courses: Beyond Criminal Justice Reform: Abolition Theory and Praxis; Civil Rights Law; and Race, Racism, and the Criminal Legal System. In the past academic year, these courses have addressed topics such as abolition theory, models of social justice and movement-support lawyering, and the American criminal legal system through a racial justice lens.

Vincent Southerland
Vincent Southerland

“The early points of our class were rooted in critical race theory, which concerns the relationship between race, power, and the law, and the origins of racial inequality in this country,” says Assistant Professor of Clinical Law Vincent Southerland, who taught Race, Racism, and the Criminal Legal System in Spring 2021 (see “Change Agent”). “For the second half of the class, we took a deeper dive and focused specifically on the ways in which race and racism shaped the pillars of the criminal legal system by examining policing, prisons, and extreme sentences like juvenile life without parole and capital punishment. Throughout the semester, we also explored strategies to advance racial justice.”

Meanwhile, the school’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee (IDC) launched a faculty-wide effort to compile and exchange resources related to anti-Blackness, racial and ethnic bias, and poverty and class bias in order to create more welcoming and inclusive classrooms.

Erin Murphy
Erin Murphy

“I think the Law School is engaging in some deep reflection about things like our curriculum and our pedagogical choices and the composition of our panels or our faculty,” says Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties Erin Murphy, chair of the IDC. “And so we’re thinking more carefully about a curriculum that is responsive to the reality of the world we have today, and that is more welcoming and inclusive of a diverse array of experiences both inside and outside law.”

In addition, the Law School allocated funding to its Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law (CRIL)—which addresses the laws, policies, and practices that lead to the oppression and marginalization of people of color—to establish a permanent endowment to support its research and advocacy.

As policing practices came under increased scrutiny, Barry Friedman, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of Politics and faculty director of the Policing Project at NYU Law, served as a special adviser alongside former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch on New York Attorney General Letitia James’s investigation into interactions between the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and protesters in the city. The investigation led James to file a federal lawsuit in January 2021 against the NYPD, alleging patterns of excessive force against protesters and false arrests.

In the past year, the Law School increased funding for the Prison Reform and Education Project Scholarship Fund, which supports scholarships to students who have been directly affected by their involvement with the criminal legal system; it incorporated anti-racist training into new student orientation through sessions to unpack identity, equity, and justice; and it participated in an anti-racist consortium of New York–area law schools. Recently, NYU Law added leading scholars to its permanent faculty—Southerland, Professor of Law Maggie Blackhawk (see “Rethinking Paradigms”), and Professor of Clinical Law César Rodríguez-Garavito (see “A Voice for Global Environmental Justice”)—whose expertise spans areas including race and crime, federal Indian law, and global and human rights. And in Fall 2021 Aronson Family Professor of Criminal Justice Bryan Stevenson will resume teaching Racial Justice and the Law.

Center of the Action

Many of NYU Law’s centers and institutes are directly addressing—through research, programming, and legal actions—a wide range of issues with both explicit and implicit racial elements, including human rights abuses, voter suppression, environmental and energy challenges, and criminal justice reform. Through fellowships and research assistantships, students are actively involved in many of these efforts.

In 2020-21, several centers provided resources that identified systemic inequalities and ways in which community members could take action. For example, CRIL compiled protest advocacy tips and resources for those interested in attending protests, taking political action, and learning more about social and racial justice issues. The Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network published a resource library for institutions and individuals on topics such as allyship toward women of color in the workplace. The Policing Project released a suite of resources outlining concrete steps that policing agencies, elected officials, and communities can take to improve policing transparency and accountability.

"We have a student body that is really committed to doing good and helping achieve reform. And we have created a number of different avenues for them to be able to do that at various points in the law school years." VICE DEAN RANDY HERTZ

Centers are also examining racial justice issues in their research. The Policing Project is conducting research in multiple sites across the country to explore alternative means of providing public safety. The Institute for Policy Integrity has analyzed how federal decision makers can better account for the disparate impacts of climate change. The NYU Furman Center released a policy brief with recommendations to safely and equitably reopen New York City housing courts that had been closed due to the pandemic.

Some centers have created tools or launched new initiatives as part of their efforts. The Criminal Justice Lab designed a police screening tool that identifies individuals with behavioral health issues who can benefit from diversion out of the criminal justice system and into treatment. The Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement solicited and published posts on its blog on ways that corporate officers, corporate boards, and enforcement and regulatory agencies can detect and root out racism and discrimination in their organizations.

Clinical Focus

For more than five decades, the Law School’s extensive clinical programs have given students the opportunity to work directly with real clients and real-world issues as part of their legal education. Racial justice matters remain central to much of this work.

For example, several clinics are focused on aiding incarcerated individuals who are vulnerable to mistreatment and deprivation of rights. The Robert and Helen Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, in collaboration with the Global Justice Clinic, is supporting the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, a national project that seeks to empower prisoners serving as informal legal advocates (often called “jailhouse lawyers”) with greater access to legal resources and training.

At the Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC), students worked with a coalition of immigrant rights advocates to draft the Dignity Not Detention Act, legislation introduced in the New York State Senate and Assembly in May 2021 to end county and private contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to detain people in New York State. (At press time, the bill was in committee.) Among its projects, the IRC created an interactive map documenting instances of retaliation against immigrant rights activists by government agencies.

Other clinics sought remedies in the courtroom. One example was the complaint that students in the Civil Rights Clinic filed against New York City’s Department of Education on behalf of Teens Take Charge, an organization led by high school students working to achieve educational equity. The complaint alleges that the department’s high school admissions screening process discriminates against students of color and violates rights under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The case is pending.

Additional hands-on efforts came through student groups. “Through student organizations like [Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC)], students can engage in law reform work,” explains Hertz. “Then there is direct representation of clients, which students can do in the Suspension Representation Project and the Unemployment Action Center. Then there are things like the Defender Collective, which does trainings for students on various aspects of criminal defense work.”

Hertz also notes that students engage with racial justice issues through a variety of internships and fellowships, often through the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), which provides funding, resources, and counseling. The Law School also offers a number of scholarships for students committed to public service work.

Lisa Hoyes
Lisa Hoyes ’99

“It is critical that all NYU Law graduates approach their work with an eye toward dismantling oppressive power structures and achieving equity and justice,” says Assistant Dean for Public Service Lisa Hoyes ’99. “Our guaranteed summer funding for public interest internships and our designated public interest post-graduate fellowships allow students to span the country doing important work in this area. This year alone, we are supporting recent graduates who will begin working at the NAACP in Baltimore, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina, and the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans. We also counsel students about the varied opportunities to get involved in racial justice efforts and help them plan their coursework, clinics, and internships to be able to start careers in this field.”

Student Voices

Student leaders from organizations like the Black Allied Law Students Association (BALSA) brought their concerns and ideas to the Law School leadership, provided feedback on school initiatives, and established spaces for students to engage with questions and fears about issues such as police brutality and immigrant rights.

Among BALSA’s activities this past year were the launch of a Good Trouble newsletter and a Defund to Abolish colloquium, the latter resulting from a collaboration with the Latinx Law Students Association and the student journal NYU Review of Law & Social Change (RLSC). The event was hosted by RLSC and provided a forum to discuss strategies around defunding and abolishing policing systems.

Lindsay Kendrick
Lindsay Kendrick

“Students have long played an advocacy role,” says Kendrick. “NYU Law is home to the first BALSA chapter; the Coalition on Law & Representation has been committed to issues around diversity of faculty, curriculum, and the student body for decades. Students have long brought a passion and energy and have significantly contributed to the leadership we are able to demonstrate.”

Zaynab Said
Zaynab Said ’23

“Because of the nature of law school [with students enrolled for a finite period], institutional memory does get lost at times among the students, which is why it’s so important for us to have those relationships with faculty, staff, administrators, to push for our campaigns and to push ultimately just for making the school more equitable and accessible to Black and brown students, low-income students, and queer students,” says Zaynab Said ’23, co-chair of BALSA.

In the 2021-22 academic year, Morrison says, NYU Law will continue to evaluate its offerings and strengthen its role as a training ground for future generations of lawyers dedicated to creating a more just world.

“As a law school, our teaching mission includes preparing our students to pursue justice, but we also have an obligation to ensure that our own community is as equitable and inclusive as it can be,” says Morrison. “While we have made good strides in improving our internal climate and in empowering our people to pursue change in the world, these are neither the first nor the last steps. As we move forward, we will build upon our long-standing commitments on all these fronts.”

Jade McClain is a public affairs officer at NYU Law. Illustration: Adobe Stock/Antonio Rodriguez

Posted September 9, 2021.