Diversity may be a priority for some law schools, but minority law students still face a harder road to a juris doctor than their white counterparts, according to an article in the latest edition of the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy.
"Measuring Racial Uneveness of Law School" concludes that minority law students face additional hurdles as a result of the structure of law school, the relatively small number of minority students and faculty on law campuses, and racial bias.
The authors, both 2012 graduates of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, surveyed law students on their own campus to gauge so-called "racial unevenness," defined as burdens that individuals face specifically because of their race. Those burdens can be due to overt racism, but also can arise from institutional culture or other environmental factors, according to authors Jonathan Feingold and Doug Souza.
"For many students, regardless of race, law school presents an immensely trying and traumatic experience," they wrote. "Racial unevenness changes this baseline by injecting a layer of difference into an already highly competitive and challenging educational environment. These race-dependent burdens, which White students do not face, create obstacles above and beyond the law school’s baseline challenges."
Feingold said that he and Souza conceived of the survey following discussions with minority students at UCLA and other law campuses across the country. "It became apparent that students of color were facing distinct burdens, but there was no vocabulary to talk about it," Feingold said.
He and Souza wanted to quantify such burdens beyond simply cataloging anecdotes, and to get at the different perceptions minority and white students have about the racial dimensions of the law school environment.
They developed a survey covering student’s perceptions of law school and their actual experiences. Their randomized survey of 178 UCLA law students found that racial unevenness exists on campus despite the school’s efforts to the contrary, and that students of color face a "hostile classroom climate."
For example, 22 percent of the minority students surveyed reported feeling unwelcome or disrespected by a professor because of their race, compared to just 3 percent of white respondents. Forty-three percent of minority respondents reported an incident in which another student made them feel unwelcome or disrespected because of their race. That figure was 13 percent among white students.
"[The] survey revealed that the campus racial climate at UCLA Law exacts a disproportionately severe toll on Students of Color," the authors wrote. "These findings provide support for the claim that Students of Color at UCLA Law do not travel down the same river or run on the same track as their White counterparts. Rather, their route is packed with a variety of race-dependent obstacles."
The survey found that white and minority students had very different perceptions about the prevalence of racial unevenness.
Among minority respondents, 76 percent agreed that minority law students at UCLA face challenges that their white counterparts don’t. Among white respondents, that figure was 42 percent. Additionally, minority respondents were less likely to agree that their racial identity was unimportant in the law school environment.
Feingold and Souza noted that minority enrollment at UCLA plummeted following the 1996 adoption of Proposition 209, which banned race-based admissions at in the state’s public schools. In 2011, the law school enrolled just 11 black students and 25 Latinos, out of a class of 319.
"Not only are Students of Color more likely than White students to perceive a negative racial climate, they are also far more likely to be victims of a racially hostile incident. The effects of such incidents are far more severe for Students of Color," the article reads.
While the survey was specific to UCLA, the problem of racial unevenness is pervasive throughout law schools — due in part to the very structure of law school, Feingold and Souza concluded.
The outsized influence of 1L grades on employment prospects — and the fact that 1L grades almost entirely depend on final exams — create an added burden for some minority students due to what is known as stereotype threat.
(This occurs when a person feels anxiety over the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about a group with which they are associated, the authors explained. In short, knowledge that minorities in general score lower on tests may actually contribute to those lower scores.)
The prevalence of the case method is also a problem, because most of the appellate cases studied in law school were decided by white, male judges, the article asserts.
"Presenting legal analysis as a race-neutral endeavor produces racial unevenness in the following way: allegedly race-neutral legal principles dictate what facts are relevant, sufficient or necessary to solve a particular legal problem," they wrote. "Due largely to the legacy of a White judiciary, facts about race and social context have been overwhelmingly marginalized to the category of irrelevant evidence."
The article makes several recommendations, including that administrators hire more minority faculty and admit more minority students. Feingold and Souza also recommended that the school perform additional research and aim to create a level playing field for all students. Feingold underscored that those recommendations apply to all law schools, not just UCLA.
UCLA dean Rachel Moran said the law school encourages "thoughtful examinations" of this and other matters of importance to society, but defended the law school’s record on faculty and student diversity.
"UCLA has the fifth highest percentage of students of color among the top 20 law schools, and we are tied for the second largest percentage of women in our entering fall class, according to 2012 ABA data," she said. "We are also very proud of our diverse faculty, which leads the top 20 law schools in the nation."
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