The Collegian
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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Duke law professor discusses Constitution, racial justice

Duke University School of Law professor Guy-Uriel Charles spoke about the relationship between the U.S. Constitution and the pursuit for racial justice at 6 p.m. Monday in his Zoom lecture "We the (White) People," which was a part of the T.C. Williams School of Law's Emroch Colloquy Series. 

The Intellectual Life Committee at the law school chose Charles as the Emroch lecturer, said Jessica Erickson, associate dean for faculty development and law professor. Erickson is the committee's chair, but she said law professor Da Lin had first suggested having Charles as a speaker.

"As a committee, we fully endorsed that suggestion because of his stellar reputation as a scholar of constitutional law and his leadership of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race, and Politics," Erickson wrote in an email to The Collegian on Sept. 15. 

"I also spoke with Professor Charles on occasion over the years about law faculty hiring as he is known as a mentor for diverse candidates, and I was always so impressed with his warmth and willingness to engage on a variety of issues, so I thought he would be a great choice for this lecture."

Charles was invited in February to be a part of the speaker series, which was originally supposed to be an on-campus event, but he agreed to give the lecture over Zoom because of COVID-19 restrictions, wrote Erickson.

When asked how the committee chooses who to invite, Erickson wrote, "More generally, we look for a scholar, judge or lawyer who is well-respected in the profession and who can talk on issues that may be of interest to our community." 

Charles talked about the 911 call transcript that preceded the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and drew attention to the caller's use of language. The caller said that there was a Black man running down "our street." 

"I was struck by this story, not simply because of the horrific outcome, but because it reflected one of the deep struggles of the Black experience, how one's Blackness is perpetually a marker of 'otherness' and the space in which Black people find themselves is never quite their own," Charles said. "The task of Blackness is often to perpetually make the case for belonging, while conversely, whiteness is often a marker of inclusion and ownership. Whiteness is an inherent claim of control, thus 'our street.'" 

Charles said that he too had faced being seen as other for his Blackness, both in his everyday and academic life. Charles tied these prejudices to the United States' foundation.

"As a constitutional scholar, I view the otherness of Black people and people of color as related, if not deeply rooted, into our constitutional structure, our constitutional history and our constitutional doctrine," Charles said. "On the one hand, we have a constitution that is birth and liberty, but on the other, we have one that has made its peace and compromise on the basis of slavery, the antithesis of liberty."  

Racial progress is not linear, Charles said. He cited the transition from the Reconstruction era to the legalization of Jim Crow laws as an example. 

"There is progress, two steps forward, then one step back," Charles said. "Racial progress is contingent upon the context of the moment, contingent upon social circumstances, contingent on will." 

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Charles said that inclusion was about outcomes, not attitudes. 

"So to the extent that people want to be anti-racist, I think that's great," Charles said. "But really, to me, what matters, is what are the outcome measures, and are we seeing a disparate impact to those outcome measures. We have to maintain and expand disparate impact doctrine and disparate impact analysis because disparate impact is critical to inclusion; it actually tells us whether people of color really do belong." 

Charles said although people's tendency might be to focus on racial justice on a larger scale, it is important to remember that the means of inclusion are multi-level. 

"So often we think about these questions at a national level, but we should think about them in any institutions that we find ourselves – national, state, local, law schools, whatever," Charles said. "We should not focus exclusively on what's going on at the national level because there are multiple sites, and those sites are fundamentally important." 

Economic steps must be taken for there to be true inclusion, and inclusion is costly, Charles said.  

"Making room for people who have been excluded will necessarily exclude those who are always seated at the table, or those who have wielded a disproportionate amount of power," Charles said. 

Creating a more inclusive school system might mean some people have to pay higher taxes, Charles said. He clarified that inclusion did not just mean bringing more people of color into certain schools.

"[Inclusion] means looking at the outcome variables and saying, 'Have we created schools in which children can learn where race isn't an indication of how well they will do on those metrics?'" Charles said. "Inclusion costs, and the question is whether we're prepared to pay those costs."

Although America has made progress on racial equality, there is still a long way to go, Charles said. 

"The fight for racial equality and inclusion in the 21st century is not the fight of the 20th, nor the fight of the 19th, and that is a good thing," Charles said. "We have overcome much and we should celebrate, but the task of inclusion, of making sure that 'we the people' includes all the people, not just 'we the white people,' is a task that remains to be accomplished."  

After the lecture, there was a Q&A section, which was moderated by Erickson, who read aloud questions students had sent in via a chat box in the Zoom call. 

Third-year law student Adam Winston said he attended the lecture because of the timeliness of the topic.

"It was nice to hear someone who was able to be civil but strongly critical as well, because I feel like so many of the people we listen to, on either side, are just yelling," Winston said. "I felt like I was hearing something for the first time in a while that I actually hadn't heard."

The next speaker in the Emroch Colloquy Series will be University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School professor Elizabeth Pollman on Oct. 9. 

The list of future speakers is featured on the Richmond School of Law's webpage and signing up to attend is available through Eventbrite. 

Contact news writer Meredith Moran at meredith.moran@richmond.edu.

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