Dismantling Legacies of Oppression in Academia (2020)




Recent events have increased awareness of longstanding, systemic racism and violence against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and offer an impetus for academia to address its own inheritance of white supremacist institutional structures (Torres 2020; Reid and Curry 2019a; Blatt 2018; Rampogal 2017; Thomas 2017a, 2017b; McClain et al. 2016; Matthew 2016; Greenberg 2015; Moore 2007) and its responsibility for dismantling systems of oppression. We offer some ideas to aid in addressing these legacies, where the main goals are to a) ensure that BIPOC voices are institutionalized within our courses, university curricula, and research, b) ensure that BIPOC scholars are adequately mentored and sponsored so as to ensure equitable opportunities and retention, c) recruit and train BIPOC students to feed the ‘pipeline’, and d) eliminate environments of discrimination and exclusion (Melaku and Beeman 2020; Daut 2019; Ferguson 2016; Alexander-Floyd 2008; Alex-Assensoh et al. 2005; see also all the threads in #BlackInTheIvory). These goals are addressed through two avenues: our individual behaviors and our subfield. Many of these suggestions also apply to departmental and university systems, and we invite faculty, students, and the subfield to initiate introducing and implementing these reforms within our institutions. Nonetheless, we, as individuals and as a subfield, have the ability to enact meaningful changes to make our field more inclusive.

What can you do?

  1. Learn BIPOC faculty and student names, learn to spell and pronounce them correctly, and use their preferred pronouns.
  2. Diversify your syllabi. In addition to the fact that BIPOC-produced scholarship is worthy of study, your students see who you prioritize and will not see themselves in fields where neither faculty nor the readings reflect them (Mercado-Lopez 2018). Commit that all of your courses will include perspectives from BIPOC, women, and other disenfranchised groups. No course should include only white (cis) male perspectives.
  3. Cite BIPOC scholars in your research. “Women Also Know Stuff” (Beaulieu et al. 2017)[1] and “POC Also Know Stuff” (Lemi, Osorio, and Rush 2020)[2] are helpful directories to identify scholars that can populate your syllabi and research references. Dion and Mitchell (2020) further offer a template for how you can evaluate how many citations you ‘should’ have in order to be representative to the BIPOC scholars in your field—but more is always better.
  4. Mentor and sponsor BIPOC students and faculty. While mentorship has been frequently referenced in regard to the promotion of women and BIPOC scholars, sponsorship means the active promotion of BIPOC to others in the field to ensure they receive equitable opportunities for advancement, funding, research collaboration, etc. Both are required, yet these efforts—like most efforts for retention–are largely engaged in by BIPOC such that they are the dependent upon their own abilities to sustain these efforts (Mercado-Lopez 2018).
  5. Cross-list existing courses and develop new, inter-disciplinary courses with other departments, like African-American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Chicano Studies.
  6. Develop an anti-racism and decolonization workshop(s) to help raise awareness and educate faculty and students (and even administrators). While certainly not sufficient as a reform, it can help communicate goals and priorities as well as aid in coordinating reforms and coalition-building.
  7. Hire more BIPOC. Eliminate names, gender, ethnicity, and school affiliation from job applications until the final round(s). Strategically recruit and solicit applications, and whenever possible hire in pairs or groups to reduce problems of tokenism (such as isolation and overwhelming service and teaching burdens due to being the lone minoritized faculty). Recognize that concerns over a candidate’s ‘right fit” is usually just code that the candidate does not sufficiently conform to the existing members of the department. This complaint implies either that 1) the department or hiring committee does not view the candidate as a real scholar, 2) that they do not want or cannot see themselves working with the candidate, 3) that, if hired, the candidate is going to be token or face a hostile environment, so the candidate will likely leave, and/or 4) that the candidate does not neatly match onto the social cliché(s) of the department. Also, be aware of how professionalism norms are based upon white, male behaviors and white aesthetics (Uddin 2020; Melaku 2019; Gray 2019; Feagin 2013). Ensure that discussions of candidate private life are off the table, always.
  8. Tenure BIPOC faculty. This means addressing how ‘objective’ metrics of promotion criteria are biased because they simultaneously hide and fuel privilege (MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt 2015). Virtually all of these measures systematically discriminate against BIPOC to generate promotion disparities (for example, see Monforti and Michelson 2008; Misra et al. 2011; Perna 2001). This includes using criteria for promotion and tenure like publication in ‘top-tier’ journals (Teele and Thelen 2017; Breuning and Sanders 2007; Evans and Moulder 2011), citation counts (Beaulieu et al. 2017; Dion, Sumner, and Mitchell 2018; Maliniak, Powers, and Walter 2013; Mitchell, Lange, and Brus 2013; Smith et al. 2020), and student evaluations (Chavez and Mitchell 2020; Uttl, White, and Gonzalez 2017; Lilienfeld 2016)—just to name a few. Not to mention the additional, often invisible labor, BIPOC scholars engage in that can hinder promotion (Flaherty 2019; Whitaker 2017; Wingfield and Skeete 2016; Grollman 2015; June 2015).
  9. Promote diverse methodologies and epistemologies, such as qualitative methods, feminist theory and methods, critical race theory, and indigenous methods. At the very least, end the discounting of these methods as ‘inferior’ to quantitative methods, as that assumption is based upon a history of white supremacy and colonization. No method or area is, as a whole, inferior. Your students and colleagues see who you disparage in professional and casual remarks thereby contributing to hostile environments where scholars will not feel welcome or supported (Gardner 2008). In addition, assumptions that these scholarships and methods lack credibility and objectivity, are not science, are only attractive to specialized audiences, are self-serving, and are political advocacy and lobbying masquerading as scholarship are misplaced (Alexander-Floyd 2015; Hesli and Lee 2013; Brettschneider 2011; Mucciaroni 2011; Seifert and Umbach 2008).
  10. Educate yourself. Those books you bought about anti-racism, oppression, police brutality, human rights, etc.? Read them. Read, for example, Fields and Fields’ (2014) Racecraft, Halley’s (2020) syllabus for readings on institutionalized racism, Tuck and Wayne’s (2012) article on decolonization, Shutack’s (2017) continually updated list of things white people can do for racial justice, and Branch and Jackson’s (2020) analysis of colorblind narratives and Black experiences. Explore works by Angela Davis, Ibram Kendi, Toni Morrison, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Tiffany Midge, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Joy Harjo, Jake Skeets, Shonda Buchanan, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore—just to name a few. Cozy up with novels by BIPOC authors to connect with more than just their struggles and to reduce the commodification of their pain in the publishing and media industries (McKinney 2020). There are dozens of recommended book lists online. Sit with them, reflect, empathize, and learn.

What can we do as a subfield?

  1. Acquire and maintain updated data on PhD granting, hiring, promotion, and leadership in the subfield. Data collection and archiving is crucial to be able to monitor progress (or the lack thereof) in our subfield. It allows us to identify which areas in the academic “pipeline” are leaking so we can address then directly, enables us to dispel myths about lack of diversity, and facilitates our ability to evaluate the effects of reforms we make. It is also imperative to collect data—while simultaneously protecting confidentiality and anonymity—on intersectional identities so we can better address lack of representation beyond gender and race/ethnicity as separately measured (Reid and Curry 2019b).
  2. Crease resources for faculty and researchers to facilitate the incorporation of the work of BIPOC to syllabi and manuscripts. This includes, for example, the development of an online repository of annotated bibliographies that highlights BIPOC scholarship and that can be categorized by theme or topic.
  3. Integrate BIPOC into mainstream Law and Courts. Make space in our journals for BIPOC scholarship, which often focuses on non-traditional or non-mainstream themes, instead of relegating it to a fringe or discounting it to other ‘more appropriate’ journals. BIPOC scholars need to be on editorial teams and have an opportunity to serve as lead editor(s), including at the Journal of Law and Courts. Organize conference panels based upon themes rather than by ‘otherness’ of the scholarship.
  4. Make conferences accessible. COVID-19 has shown how we can develop infrastructure for virtual conferences that can complement existing conferences that normally require travel. We need to make this infrastructure financially and technologically accessible, which would enable increased ability of graduate students, BIPOC, women, care-takers, and others to engage in these events. These virtual options should mimic, as much as possible, the opportunities, engagement, and networking of regular conferences.
  5. Develop undergraduate research opportunities in law and courts, particularly recruiting BIPOC and minoritized students. Ensure these opportunities are accessible and offer training and mentorship that will assist students in graduate school and careers.
  6. Nominate and promote BIPOC for awards, particularly research-related awards and leadership awards.
  7. Create spaces dedicated to BIPOC to offer support and resources, enhance networking and mentorship, and reduce experiences with isolation and imposter syndrome. In this effort, a new group of BIPOC scholars of law and courts has been created, whose mission is to be a safe space for minoritized and racialized scholars engaging in law and court research so as to promote cross-institutional mentorship and collaboration, offer pre-review and research feedback, and provide a platform for professional networking. This group is open to scholars at any level or institution who engage in scholarship on law, courts, justice, and the rule of law (all broadly defined). If you, or someone you know, may be interested in joining this group or would like more information, please contact Dr. Rebecca Reid at rareid@utep.edu.

While not exhaustive, these reforms will help us start redressing white-privileging legacies so as to ensure that ‘diversity and inclusion’ are not the academic equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’. It also creates opportunities to enhance student and faculty engagement with current political processes of societal transformation. Meaningfully including BIPOC scholars improves our field’s recruitment and retention of students by eliminating the negative racial climate that is “subtlely” (or explicitly) communicated in predominantly white Ph.D. institutions that usually results in substantially higher attrition rates for BIPOC students (Gardner 2008) as well as faculty (Jayakumar, Howard, Allen, and Han 2009). Adding their perspectives and research makes public law more rigorous by offering scholarship that can help propel fixed, narrowly construed, theoretically unsophisticated concepts and relationships into more valid, enriched, and dynamic ones. Including more diverse scholars and scholarship makes public law more salient and relevant to audiences outside our subfield since they synthesize diverse sets of ontologies, epistemologies, literatures, methodologies, and themes that are conducive to inter-disciplinary interests and collaboration. Scholarship that more directly speaks to a variety of ongoing social and political processes and their effects on oft-ignored populations further benefits scholars, policy makers, advocates, and organizers.

Change requires action and leadership, where each of us has a role in dismantling systems of oppression. We have a responsibility as educators and as gatekeepers to turn a critical lens to our own institutions and behaviors, to recognize how each of us play a role within these larger systems of disenfranchisement and violence. We have the opportunity to re-envision and redefine our subfield and academia through collaborative efforts so as to make it more equitable, more accessible, more inclusive, more relevant to the modern world. We have the opportunity and responsibility to enact change. Change is not convenient. It is imperfect yet required, and it benefits us all. This is your invitation, your mandate. Together, we rise.


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