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We can’t address systemic racism if we can’t discuss it without backlash | COMMENTARY

FILE -- Georgetown Law in Washington, June 20, 2013. Georgetown University Law Center said on Thursday, March 11, 2021, that it had terminated an adjunct professor who made "abhorrent" remarks about Black students on a video call and had placed another adjunct who was on the call with her on administrative leave.
FILE -- Georgetown Law in Washington, June 20, 2013. Georgetown University Law Center said on Thursday, March 11, 2021, that it had terminated an adjunct professor who made "abhorrent" remarks about Black students on a video call and had placed another adjunct who was on the call with her on administrative leave. (Christopher Gregory/The New York Times)

Do Black students receive lower grades in law school? If so, why?

It has now become dangerous to ask those questions. And that’s very bad news for anyone who cares about systemic racism — or freedom of speech — in the United States. We’ll never solve America’s glaring racial inequities unless we can also talk about them.

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That’s the real take-away of last week’s imbroglio at Georgetown Law School, where adjunct professor Sandra A. Sellers was fired for saying that her Black students often underachieve academically. “I hate to say this,” Ms. Sellers told fellow adjunct David C. Batson, apparently unaware that she was still being recorded after a virtual class. “I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower [students] are Blacks … You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

The video went viral, and Ms. Sellers was fired by the law school dean, William M. Treanor, who called her remarks “abhorrent.” Mr. Batson, who had murmured “Mm-hmm” during the conversation, was placed on administrative leave and later resigned. In a letter to Dean Treanor, Mr. Batson said he had “missed the chance to respond in a more direct manner to address the inappropriate content of those remarks.”

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What, precisely, was inappropriate about Ms. Sellers’ remarks? Some viewers objected to her jocular tone and to her use of the term “Blacks,” as opposed to Black students. But her statement reflected an important social fact: On the average, Black Americans get lower grades in law school than other racial groups do. They’re also less likely to pass the bar exam on the first try.

And there’s only one plausible explanation for that: systemic racism.

From the youngest ages, Black Americans are less likely to receive the kind of high-quality education that predicts for academic success later on. They’re also less likely to enjoy the social networks and other kinds of informal advantages that benefit their white peers.

But even when you compare them to non-Black students with similar college grades and standardized test scores, African Americans still get worse grades in law school. It isn’t just that our broader society discriminates against them, although of course it does. Something happens in law school itself that inhibits Black achievement.

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It might be the ongoing stress of negative stereotypes, which have been shown to decrease academic performance. It might be the subtle (and not-so-subtle) comments by peers, implying that you only got in because you’re Black. Or it might be the paucity of Black faculty members, who can identify with your plight and enhance your confidence.

Or, yes, it might be because the white professors are prejudiced against you. That was the claim of the Black Law Students Association at Georgetown, which wrote that Ms. Sellers’ “racist statements” show “not only Sellers’ beliefs about Black students in her classes, but also how her racist thoughts have translated to racist actions.” Indeed, the students charged, “Sellers’ bias impacted the grades of Black students in her classes.”

Actually, the students don’t know that. To be sure, Sandra Sellers is subject to the same implicit biases and prejudices as the rest of us. Yet grading at law school is mostly anonymous — that is, professors don’t know whose exam they are reading — so it’s hard to imagine that their biases are the key element in bringing down Black grades. It’s much more likely that other systematic factors in our educational institutions, and in our wider society are at fault.

Yet it’s so much easier — and, let’s face it, a lot more fun — to blame a hapless adjunct faculty member who was captured on a 40-second video clip. Ms. Sellers did not invoke any of the hateful, racist tropes that infect our culture. All she said was that Black students received lower grades in her classes, and — several times — she decried that fact.

And we are now less able to change it, because facts themselves have been placed out of bounds. We need a full and honest examination of racial inequity in law schools and everywhere else. But that won’t happen if we’re barred from discussing (or even mentioning) what is right before our eyes.

Georgetown’s official policy on speech says it is “committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters.” It has now carved out an exception for matters of race, which are essentially closed. The lesson of last week is clear and unequivocal: Keep your big mouth shut, if you know what’s good for you.

That can’t be good for our universities or for anyone who attends them, including Black Americans. Systemic racism is an enormous blight on our society. But we can’t fight it if we’re biting our tongues at the same time.

Jonathan Zimmerman (jlzimm@aol.com) teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn,” which will be published next month by City of Light Press.

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