The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Stanford law professor read a quote with the n-word to his class, stirring outrage at the school

Stanford University in California. (Ben Margot/AP)

Stanford University law professor Michael W. McConnell was nearing the end of a course on the creation of the Constitution last week when he decided to read a quote attributed to Patrick Henry from an 18th-century debate in Virginia.

But first, McConnell paused the Zoom video recording, according to one of his students, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing backlash. Then the professor read the statement, which he said was intended to stoke racist opposition to ratification of the Constitution.

The quote included the n-word. McConnell, who is white, resumed recording and turned to other topics, the student said.

Within days, the school had erupted into a debate over why McConnell had directly quoted the racist slur. The uproar came as demonstrations against police brutality were sweeping the nation in response to the death of George Floyd after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee for several minutes onto the black man’s neck.

The debate was intensified by McConnell’s prominence in free speech issues. A former federal appellate judge, he is also co-chair of an oversight board recently created to make decisions about the removal of controversial content on Facebook.

And it was complicated by the fact that it wasn’t the first time this school year that Stanford law students heard a white professor say the n-word in class. In November, a guest lecturer from the university’s history department had pronounced the word in an analysis of racist cigarette marketing to a torts class.

“We obviously condemn the use of the n-word in any classroom,” said Donovan Hicks, 25, of Spartanburg, S.C., who is co-president of the Black Law Students Association at Stanford. “We think it serves no pedagogical purpose.”

On Friday, the association expressed its outrage over the latest incident by emailing the law school “A Guide for White Professors,” a sarcastic primer on saying the n-word in class. “You start reading,” the statement said. “You turn off the recording. And then. You can say it. For you, it’s cathartic. It’s necessary. After all, we can’t sanitize history. … Then you turn the recording back on and continue with the rest of your lesson. Easy. A job well done.”

In an email Friday evening to the law school community, McConnell described his actions as a pedagogical choice made “with good will.”

“I presented the quotation in its historical context, emphasized that they were not my words, and condemned their use,” McConnell wrote. “It is vitally important to teach the history of the American Founding warts and all, and not to bowdlerize or sugar-coat it.”

But McConnell acknowledged that the epithet is “painful and distracting for many students, especially students of color, and that the despicable character of these aspects of our history can be taught in other ways, without uttering the word.” He said he would not use the word again.

Reached by email this week, McConnell declined to elaborate on what happened. “I made a statement and have nothing to add,” he wrote to The Washington Post.

Jenny S. Martinez, dean of the law school, told the school community Friday evening that she strongly disagreed with McConnell’s decision to quote the n-word but understood that he believed it was done for a legitimate teaching purpose.

“I recognize how upsetting it is to many in our community to be having a conversation on issues of this sort once again,” Martinez wrote. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Throughout academia, questions have mounted in recent years about how faculty should navigate lessons on artistic and historical documents that include racist language. Some say that pronouncing the n-word is necessary in certain contexts; others maintain that it can be avoided. An assistant professor of art and art history at Stanford apologized last month for using a form of the n-word in an online discussion of hip-hop music, according to reports in the Stanford Daily and Inside Higher Ed.

Robert N. Proctor, the Stanford historian who gave the guest lecture in November that drew scrutiny, said Wednesday that his talk at the law school had sought to illuminate racist cigarette advertising and branding campaigns. “My whole career has been devoted to exposing, analyzing and condemning racism and white privilege,” Proctor said.

After the November incident, Martinez told the school in an email that she was sorry about what happened and that she understood outrage over the explicit recitation of racist language in class. “Sometimes a racist passage is unavoidable to read aloud — for example, when it constitutes the holding of the case,” Martinez wrote at the time. But she added: “Oral repetition of the words rarely adds substantive content to the class even when the purpose is to condemn the epithet. … Racial epithets have unique power to wound by bringing the whole weight of historical discrimination and violence down in a few syllables.”

This week, the law school said its faculty voted to require instructors to participate in “training on classroom management, including diversity and inclusion.” Martinez has appointed a committee to look at what else should be done, the school said, and she is meeting with all faculty on “strategies to improve classroom dynamics.”

Still, students are pushing the school and McConnell to do more. Aryn Frazier, 24, of Silver Spring, a co-president of the Black Law Students Association, said the professor should apologize for what she called “an abuse of power.” She said the former judge, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit from 2002 to 2009, wields significant influence at the school and beyond.

Stanford’s law school is one of the most prestigious in the country. Of roughly 560 students, about 7 percent identify as black or African American, and another 7 percent as multiracial, according to data sent to the American Bar Association. Overall, about 38 percent of the school’s students are racial or ethnic minorities.