Tanya K. Hernández

The Archibald R. Murray Professorship

Think the growing population of mixed-race people in America means a future of racial harmony? Think again, says Professor Tanya Hernández, recently named to Fordham Law’s Archibald R. Murray Professorship. Her upcoming book, Multiracials and Civil Rights, shows that people of mixed race experience the same kind of discrimination as any other non-white person. That is, they suffer bias not because they’re multiracial, but because they’re perceived to be non-white. “Their personal racial identities are somewhat novel, but the discrimination they face is not,” says Hernández. “It’s still a skin-based hierarchy.” 

For the book, due in 2018 from NYU Press, Hernández looked at discrimination cases across employment law, housing law, and a wide swath of other legal areas to show how the belief that multiracial identity is somehow unique and exotic distracts from the work civil rights law needs to do for all who aren’t white, no matter their special circumstances. Hernández, a comparative law expert, used a similar technique to dispel a similar myth in her first book, Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response, which put racial regulation laws from Latin American countries side by side for Hernández’s microscopic examination. She found that though countries like Brazil boast non-white majorities, their records on racial equality are far from squeaky clean. “The demographics of whites versus non-whites in these countries may be different, but the societies are still built on antiquated colonial notions of skin color determining which citizens are worthy,” she says.

When Hernández first started thinking about civil rights, it was from the “practical” mindset of a would-be immigration lawyer. A first-generation Puerto-Rican American raised in Hell’s Kitchen who went to prep school and Brown University on scholarship, Hernández felt obligated to “do something business-like immediately” after graduating. She enrolled in the Bloomingdale’s executive training program for a short time before realizing her passion for the law. Even then, she figured immigration law would fulfill her self-imposed need for a traditional job. But after enrolling at Yale Law School, it didn’t take long for the academic in her to surface. “Immigration law was about mechanical and administrative processes,” she says. “What wound up interesting me were the systemic causes that led to those laws.”

At the Yale Law Journal, she found her scholarly voice when she wrote an article on racially motivated violence based on her experiences as a summer intern at Latino Justice and the New York District Attorney’s office. Ever since she’s tried to infuse her scholarly insights with on-the-ground social justice work in writing that spans law journals to New York Times op-eds to regular contributions in the Huffington Post. “My scholarly work is still part of the engagement I have with people in the field,” she says.

Some of her more recent papers have applied the psychological field of implicit bias—prejudices we don’t realize we have—to civil rights law. In 2015, she received a Fulbright Specialist Grant to consult on racial issues in Trinidad and France, uncovering levels of less obvious but no less harmful discrimination that surprised her colleagues at the universities she visited, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense and the University of the West Indies Law School. Hernández also created a class at Fordham Law on the subject, The Science of Implicit Bias and the Law, which she teaches alongside Anti-Discrimination Law, Comparative Employment Discrimination, Critical Race Theory, and Trusts and Wills.

In November, Hernández organized a symposium on Loving v. Virginia, the 50-year-old Supreme Court case that legalized mixed-race marriage. The event, sponsored by the Fordham Law Review, in collaboration with the Law School’s Center on Race, Law and Justice, for which she serves as associate director and head of global and comparative law programs and initiatives, highlighted the gains America has made in race relations and the work it still has to do.

“The predication of the census that whites will be a minority isn’t going to bring the qualitative change in social justice that people are predicting,” she says.How we characterize people may change, but I’m not convinced that will alter our racial hierarchy. I’m not saying it can’t change, it’s just going to take lots of work on all our parts.”


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