The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Black law students are thriving at places like Georgetown, but there still aren’t enough of them

Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. (Nick Anderson/TWP)

Tahir Duckett, a 2017 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, is a civil rights attorney at the firm Relman Colfax.

In 2013, just over a month after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, I walked into my first day at Georgetown Law. I was the only Black student in my section of more than 70 students.

Both my undergraduate GPA and my LSAT score were well below Georgetown Law’s median. I almost certainly benefited from affirmative action in my admission. Critics of affirmative action would have labeled me “unqualified” and unlikely to thrive at Georgetown — and left my first-year section completely devoid of Black students.

But I did thrive, graduating magna cum laude, clerking for a federal judge, and — much more important — building a successful public interest career. And I’m not alone. Every Black student I knew at Georgetown navigated the challenges of studying in a predominantly White institution and, regardless of their final GPA, went on to do important work.

That’s the critical broader context to a racist incident that thrust the Georgetown Law community into the public eye last week. The school was enveloped in controversy as a Zoom video of two adjunct professors discussing their Black students went viral. In the video, now-former mediation professor Sandra Sellers criticizes an unnamed student’s work as “jumbled” before elaborating, “I hate to say this … a lot of my lower ones are Blacks. Happens almost every semester.”

Sellers’s language struck a nerve, sparking a petition calling for her termination that was signed by thousands of students and alumni alike. But it also was latched onto by opponents of affirmative action, who continue to cling to misconceptions about its operation and effectiveness that harm law students in the position I once was in.

In 2019, Black students accounted for just 7.6 percent of incoming law students nationwide. The success of Black students in elite institutions is remarkable given the unique problems they face when they arrive — in particular, how isolated they can be.

White students rarely understand the emotional drain of racial isolation, particularly against the backdrop of white supremacy. But it is no insignificant thing. Black students face “stereotype threat,” a well-researched phenomenon that explains how group stereotypes cause stereotyped students to perform poorly on standardized tests. And their small numbers mean that, as with Sellers, their performance is racialized in ways that White students never have to face.

When Black students perform poorly, it is always seen as sadly typical, while their successes are viewed as evidence of the success of the institution. In short, they carry not just the burden of their own expectations but also the burden of representing an entire race whenever they walk into a law-school classroom. They must be constantly vigilant of which professors and classmates carry prejudices. Law schools are already emotional crucibles; these additional stressors exact a heavy toll.

But conservative legal commentators such as Ted Frank and Ed Whelan have found in Sellers’s words their latest cause célèbre, using them as evidence of a supposed “mismatch” between poorly qualified Black beneficiaries of affirmative action and elite institutions of higher education.

Mismatch theory, widely popularized by UCLA Law professor Richard Sander, contends that affirmative action in university admissions paradoxically does more harm than good to “underqualified” minority students. Sander posits that these students learn less, are less likely to pursue demanding coursework, receive lower grades and are ultimately less likely to graduate and, in the case of law school, pass the bar exam. The last time the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of affirmative action, Justice Antonin Scalia promoted mismatch theory from the bench during oral arguments.

Critics have “identified several fundamental, and persistent, problems” with the research methodology used to support the theory, according to UCLA Law professor Sherod Thaxton — problems that Sander has never managed to remedy — and other researchers have been unable to validate Sander’s research, instead “reaching conclusions directly contrary to those of mismatch,” according to an amicus brief filed in 2015 by a group of scholars in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case.

The truth is that Black students have long been thriving in elite institutions. For example, a 2002 study suggested that while attending elite colleges generally does not increase earnings for students across the board, Black and Hispanic students were exceptions. A 2005 study concluded that “minority students’ likelihood of graduation increases as the selectivity of the institution attended rises.” But because mismatch theory aligns with pernicious stereotypes of Black pathology, it has continued to hold.

If we’re interested in helping Black students succeed in elite institutions, we can start by making sure that there are more of them. Just three weeks ago, an anti-affirmative action group filed a petition asking the Supreme Court, with its newly strengthened conservative majority, to prohibit race-based affirmative action. Contrary to justifying a rollback of affirmative action policies, the controversy at Georgetown demonstrates just how important it is for the court to decline that invitation.

This article has been updated.

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Charles Lane: California may have foreshadowed the end of affirmative action

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Paul Butler: Why Derek Chauvin’s jury must have Black members

Jonathan Zimmerman: Who’s benefiting from affirmative action? White men.

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