Georgetown law mandates groupthink (opinion)
Georgetown Law School’s handling of racist comments from professors is alarming. By imposing orthodoxy and groupthink, the school betrayed its educational mission and thus promoted structural racism.
The school has had a series of embarrassing racial incidents lately, most recently when Franz Werro, a teacher, couldn’t remember the name of an Asian American student and addressed him as ” Mr. China man. There was the usual horrified reaction, but it was tempered by an unusual generosity towards Werro, who said that as a non-native English speaker he was unfamiliar with the racist meanings of the term. Even the Above the law blog, ordinarily a powerful harsh critic of law schools, was ready to give the man some slack.
A tweet in January from speaker Ilya Shapiro was received with less charity. He praised his favorite Supreme Court nominee while complaining that President Biden would appoint a “lesser black woman.” He quickly deleted the tweet and apologized, but Georgetown suspended him pending an investigation into whether he violated the school’s non-discrimination policies (and the dean sent a email with the worst possible interpretation of what he had written). Shapiro correctly observed that “there really isn’t much to investigate.” The facts are undisputed: the tweet was stupid, as was the idea that there is only one most qualified candidate. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has an impressive resume. But this stupid tweet is protected by Georgetown’s academic freedom policies.
But the most disturbing episode happened almost a year ago. Two adjunct professors accidentally recorded a private conversation online, in which one of them complained that many of his underperforming students were black and said “it’s driving me crazy.” The other teacher wondered if “my own unconscious biases” were part of the reason. Dean Bill Treanor called the remarks “reprehensible” and “odious”, said the conversation had “no place in our educational community” and called out “the bias in our grading process”. He fired the teacher who was speaking and forced the resignation of the other, obviously for listening and not for opposing it.
Treanor did not specify what was “odious” in the statements. I have no idea if it is in fact true that black students clustered at the bottom of the class in question. There is substantial evidence that this is happening in some schools, and when it does, it’s bad news for black students.
The Dean, however, apparently thinks that even if it’s true, it shouldn’t be said. He’ll punish you if you say so, and everyone in Georgetown knows that now. This is not the right way to fight racism. It actually reinforces the barriers to success for black people. I’m a law professor myself and I happen to support affirmative action. But we misunderstand our task if we think that hiding facts – or even refusing to investigate their veracity – is the way to promote equality.
Despite our best efforts, each year 25% of our students end up in the bottom quarter of our class. As teachers, we need to understand why these students, who entered with impressive credentials, are not doing as well as their peers. The rationale for a diversity and equity-focused bureaucracy is that minority students face unique challenges. It would not be surprising if these challenges affected the academic performance of some students. The standard response has been increasingly diverse training, but it’s generally an inefficient waste of resources. One of its few benefits is to make teachers question whether unconscious racism affects their work, but these teachers have been punished for doing precisely that. We need a set of evidence-based best practices that will help our students succeed.
Students’ feelings matter, of course, because they affect performance. But the purpose of a law school is not to comfort students, but to empower them, to give them the resources to make our society a fairer place than it is now.
This type of repression has recently been associated with the political left (although the right is worse, increasingly codifying such censorship into law). I’ve been on the left all my life. The left with which I identify aims for real material change. This project demands attention to questions of causation and efficacy, not to what John McWhorter calls “a willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety of the kind that has helped no group in human history.”
A university devoted to truth is an ally of those who seek social change. If you want to have a real effect on the world, you have to think about what works and what doesn’t. One of the best arguments for free speech is that our ideas might be wrong. The best basis for our trust in them, as John Stuart Mill observed, is “a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them to be without foundation.”
Racism is obviously a root cause of the barriers that stand between the worst-off African Americans and the decent life they could have. But the same goes for other phenomena that everyone knows about but that many whites are afraid to mention: the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites, the high incidence of black single-parent families and the disproportionate violence among young black men. They are themselves products of America’s shameful racial history, but they still have destructive effects distinct from anything racists do today. There are good reasons to be cautious when discussing these facts, which are gleefully cited by genuine and shameless racists. But unless we figure out how to change them, the lives of victims of racism will not improve. A conversation in which these truths cannot be mentioned is of little use. The way forward is not obvious. We need to frankly discuss the merits of different policy proposals. The community cannot do this without a culture of free speech. If “systemic racism” refers to the complex totality of causal processes that perpetuate the marginal status of so many African Americans, then the orthodoxy that Georgetown Law promotes operates to reinforce structural racism.