Paul L. Caron

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Zimmerman: We Can’t Address Systemic Racism If We Can’t Discuss It Without Backlash

Following up on last week's post, Georgetown Law School Fires Professor For ‘Abhorrent’ Remarks About Black Students Captured On Zoom:  

Baltimore Sun op-ed:  We Can’t Address Systemic Racism If We Can’t Discuss It Without Backlash, by Jonathan Zimmerman (Pennsylvania):

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.

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.” ...

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. ... [E]ven 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. ...

[I]t’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.

Newsweek op-ed:  Georgetown Fires Professor for Agonizing over Black Students' Grades, by Alan Dershowitz (Harvard):

Georgetown University Law Center fired an adjunct professor for expressing "angst" over the fact that her African-American students seemed to be getting lower grades than their white counterparts. ...

During my 50 years at Harvard, I have overheard many conversations among faculty that mirror the angst that Sellers expressed. I have heard this angst expressed by professors of every racial, religious and ethnic background. It is a common subject for discussion in faculty lunchrooms and meetings all around the country. The issue that Sellers and Batson were privately discussing is a real and serious one that must be addressed by all law schools, and indeed other institutions of higher learning. It should not become a verboten topic of conversation. But Georgetown Law School has not only denied its faculty and students the right to discuss the subject; it has also denied them the right to remain silent while such a discussion is occurring. ...

Those of us who strongly believe in academic freedom, freedom of thought and expression and true diversity of ideas must fight back against the groupthink now being imposed by university administrators, at the demand of students and others who seek to censor certain ideas. Firing professors for expressing deeply felt angst and honestly believed positions on complex matters is simply un-American. Georgetown is better than that, and must do better for the sake of all Americans who have the right to hear all points of view on divisive issues.

Robert Shibley (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)), One Georgetown Law Professor Fired, One Resigns After Conversation About Black Students’ Academic Performance Accidentally Recorded:

Whether or not the professors actually did anything warranting punishment is another question. When it comes to the moral rightness or wrongness of having that conversation, expressing those sentiments (as Sellers did) or challenging them (as Batson did not, at least in this recording) people can, and do, disagree. Slate’s Stern, for example, appears to believe that Georgetown Law did not act swiftly enough to take action against the professors, since it was informed of the remarks on Monday morning and only terminated Sellers on Thursday after the video went public.

When it comes to whether Sellers or Batson could or should have been punished by Georgetown Law, though, the answer is clear — under Georgetown’s own rules, the professors had the right to have that conversation, and they should not have been punished.

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