Reflections on the Critical Race Theory Conference

By: Aida Ashouri

Critiquing the legal system for not taking into consideration the voices of marginalized communities has been long overdue, and still most law school campuses lack a Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) course. This conference, therefore, offered an unparalleled opportunity to not only learn about CRT, but also to network with other students and practitioners striving to make CRT a part of legal pedagogy on their campuses and their organization’s mission.

Unfortunately, though, the blizzard, Nemo, could not have come at a worse time, with its full force starting on the first day of what would have been the conference. It left more then two feet of snow on the ground, cancelling public transportation, and leaving roads blanketed in snow. Cabs were unavailable, and cars struggled to drive on the roads, which were poorly plowed if they were plowed at all.

The weather conditions resulted in the conference being significantly pared back. The one a half- day conference turned into a three-quarter day conference. Initially more than 500 people were expected to attend. Overall around 150 people ended up attending, though there were a small consistent number of attendees. Additionally many speakers were unable to attend, including Charles Lawrence and Cheryl Harris, because of the blizzard.

With the conference being significantly pared back, what was expected to be a lecture format turned into something like a town hall discussion. Since events started late, the time crunch led the panelist leaders to prioritize discussion over lecturing about CRT, with mixed results. Discussants spoke mostly about specific issues concerning their respective schools. Therefore, the discussion was not relatable to all students, and felt disorganized.

Still, with the blizzard, and with the disorganized discussions, the conference did start off in a powerful way. The conference opened with a CRT teach-in. This was very effective and Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres led this teach-in. The teach-in, or workshop, focused on examining forms of communication, roles, assumptions, and framing among other issues in a CRT lens regarding a specific incident. The incident involved an African-American female who was presumed to be uneducated and lower income. She was asking a question at an event that discussed immigration and the need to have a more humane immigration policy towards undocumented immigrants. The event featured a panel of academics who were Latino. There was no context regarding their own backgrounds. Her question challenged the panelists, basically stating that the African-American woman had her own problems: had to fight with the police herself, and work hard to feed her children, and compete with Latino immigrants for jobs, and still was not considered a full citizen. So she was challenging the academics on the grounds that she should even care at all about this issue.

Firstly, Guinier and Torres acted out the roles among each other, and then they asked volunteers in the lecture hall to take on the roles themselves and see if they could spark a better discussion. It was extremely interesting to see how this discussion played out amongst the students. One man played the role of the African-American woman. He was also African-American and was from a college in the South. The rest of the panelists were four Latino/as. Though the persons playing the panelists changed throughout the demonstration, unlike the African-American woman representative, at one point a White British woman was a panelist. Seeing this interaction revealed much of the difficulty in conducting dialogue between marginalized communities, in addition it revealed the use of CRT.

What became most obvious to me during this demonstration was that there was no real dialogue between the two interest groups. One person was explaining her grievances, which were real and significant, and the panelists essentially were reducing her grievances. By not listening but instead trying to deflect her story and focus on the issue of immigration, and essentially prioritizing their own issue, they reduced hers. The discussion was, instead of collaborative and open, linear and closed. Of course there was no resolution at the end of this demonstration because of the communication styles. Neither group was able to get to the root that both groups were struggling against government policies that have marginalized both of them in juxtaposition to one another; instead they were caught up trying to validate their own story and issue with one another. There was a lack of listening, and a lack of open communication.

This workshop was a fantastic example of the need for open communication to improve intersectionality. There is no issue in isolation, as every marginalized group, or every form of prejudice is created in juxtaposition to another. The panelists, in their position of power, representing an academic institution, were so aggrieved with making their intellectual point, that they completely overlooked the fact that this woman was coming from a marginalized community herself and that she had just as much right to be heard as they did. At the same time, the woman assumed that the academics came from a place of privilege and could not identify with her problems while she told her story. Leaving the two groups in isolation and talking at one another rather than with.

Such an exercise would be useful in any setting. After an event happens we are all left wondering if we could have done something different to improve the outcome. This could be anything from dealing with a racist comment made by a peer in a classroom, to collaborating with an organization that has historically been isolated or averse to your issue. Basically, practice helps us examine how CRT can apply to our real life events, improving our interactions and intersectionality.

Though the beginning of the conference was a great way to demonstrate practical applications of CRT, the ending felt very inconclusive. The panelists attempted to perform a web conference call with the speakers who were unable to attend the conference. Still, there were many technical difficulties with this and it was rather unsuccessful. Afterwards, Kimberlé Crenshaw gave great closing statements that summarized the impact and importance of CRT. Then she showed a video that may have been better slotted in the beginning of the conference. The video showed people representing different communities, including White, African-American, Asian, and Latino, running in a race. It began with the runners of color starting after the White runner had already made many laps. Different representations were made during the race that either slowed or completely stopped the runners. This included a cage that dropped on the African-American runner representing the large number of African-Americans in prison. The graphics were a good representation of the problems the communities of color struggle through, which would have been a great introduction to show the importance and need of CRT to analyze these issues. Having this video, though, at the end of the conference without any discussion afterwards, had the conference end on a note that felt more depressing then empowering or uplifting.

The reality is that these issues are more potent than ever, but conferences feel more effective when those who are dealing with the stresses and struggles to work against the structural inequalities feel empowered and uplifted. A future conference is in the works for 2014 as of this moment at Yale Law School. I hope that the organizers take these issues into consideration to plan something that focuses on practical applications of CRT in an interactive way, have an organized discussion format, and leave attendees empowered.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.