BRISTOL, R.I. — Roger Williams University School of Law this fall will become one of the few law schools in the country to require that students take classes about race and the law.
The course, “Race & the Foundations of American Law,” will be launched amid a national debate over race-related curricula and attempts in some states to ban lessons on critical race theory.
Faculty at RWU Law, the only law school in Rhode Island, voted to create the course in June 2020 in response to student interest and a request from the school’s chapter of the Black Law Students Association following the murder of George Floyd.
“Our students are going to be lawyers — leaders in their profession and their communities — and they need a broad and rich perspective on the law, how it has evolved, and how we will all work in our own ways to make the world a better place,” said RWU’s law dean, Gregory W. Bowman, in an interview.
Law is a technical field, he noted. “But laws and regulations also have purposes and theories and behind them and historical underpinnings, and lawyers today need to understand those and the effects of systemic inequity in law.”
Although critics call these kinds of courses “indoctrination,” Bowman said, “It’s not indoctrination to give law students the skills and understanding they need to succeed as lawyers. That is training.”
No one expects lawyers to be trained in the same way as they were 200 or even 50 years ago, he said. So law schools should adapt, aiming to improve for the good of students and society, he said.
“Change is not indoctrination,” Bowman said. “Change is progress.”
The course aligns with RWU Law’s “larger social justice mission,” he said. “It is something we needed to do, something transformative, something that will better equip our graduates to work within the legal system to create a world that is more equitable for all,” he said.
The course is designed to provide “both a historical overview and a current assessment of how race has played a role in American law and provide critical analytic tools students can bring to all aspects of their legal education and future practice.”
Professor Jared A. Goldstein, RWU Law’s associate dean for academic affairs, said the class, which will be mandatory for second-year law students, will introduce students to the real world in which American law has evolved.
“A crucial ingredient in that training is for students to understand the role of the law in creating and sustaining existing power structures, including the inequitable distribution of power by race,” Goldstein said. “Students who understand the connections between race and law will be better lawyers and better prepared to work for justice.”
To develop the course with student input, the faculty introduced it as an elective in the spring 2021 semester with professors Diana Hassel, Nadiyah Humber, and Nicole Dyszlewski.
“The course created a desire to learn more about the systemic ways in which racial hierarchy has been created and supported by the law,” Hassel said. “Students who took the course will continue that exploration throughout their legal careers.”
Brooklyn Crockton, a rising third-year RWU Law student from Rochester, N.Y. , provided the school with a statement supporting the class. “When the course started, I thought I knew a lot more than I did, because I am African-American myself,” she said. “But I’d say about 90 percent of the course content was totally new to me — and I was an Africana Studies minor, too.”
Crockton described the course as “an absolute necessity” for everyone. “I think it’s going to make people very uncomfortable, but I also think it’s important that we don’t shy away or back down from that challenge,” she said.
Dominick Gargano, a white third-year RWU Law student from Morristown, N.J., also provided a statement of support.
“What we were really studying in this class is history, factual information,” he said. “It’s not a ‘version’ of something, or an interpretation. We’re doing what we do in every other law class: looking at the facts. And you deal with that information, and then you start to think about what we can do to make things better.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.