To close out Black History Month, on Feb. 25 the Center on Race, Law and Justice presented a forward-looking discussion titled, “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” Five scholars of race and the law came together to talk about what the future holds for Black people—especially given that the U.S. is projected to tip from being majority-white to majority-minority by 2044—as well as the role law and lawyers can play in shaping that future.
Center on Race, Law and Justice Director Bennett Capers, who moderated the conversation, highlighted that, while progress has been made in politics—with the recent elections of Barack Obama as president and Kamala Harris as vice president—the legal profession remains one of the least diverse of any profession. With that in mind, the panelists debated whether to be hopeful, doubtful, or cautiously optimistic about the future.
Ifeoma Ajunwa, associate professor of law and director of the artificial intelligence and the decision-making research program at the UNC School of Law, explained she is positive, though heedful, about the future. She noted, for example, how Stacey Abrams—the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and first African American to lead in the House of Representatives—showcased “very real political power” by doubling down on efforts to increase voter mobilization and registration this past presidential election.
“In the past year, we saw several instances of police brutality that came to the national forefront. We saw the storming of the Capitol,” Ajunwa added. “But, on the other hand, I also think we’ve seen signs of what critical race theorists might call a second or third Reconstruction happening.”
When it comes to the law, Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, argued Black people’s rights continue to remain under assault as lawmakers attempt to outlaw Sunday voting, eliminate early voting, and limit the time period for voter registration. He argued that state law, state courts, and politics in general should be taken more seriously moving forward.
“We are going to be facing the use of law as a political tool to undermine and demean the citizenship of Black people,” Thomas said. “I’m for rights, and I’m for going to the courts to seek protection of our rights—not just because rights matter, but because citizenship matters.”
Thomas continued, arguing that courts are just one of the many arenas in which a political discourse about rights can occur. “The challenge, it seems to me, is not to withdraw from the courts, but to integrate the focus on the courts with aggressive advocacy—not just in government, but also with the building of critical racial literacy in civil society,” he said.
Deborah N. Archer, professor of clinical law and co-director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU Law School, similarly emphasized the importances of state constitutions and state courts.
“I think, if anything, we should have learned from this pandemic the way local governments can step into the void and protect rights and advance basic human dignity where the federal government fails,” she said. “We should be running for election on boards of education, water boards, and city council[s]. That’s where some really powerful change can happen to impact people’s lives.”
Kimberly Bain, John Holmes Assistant Professor in Humanities at Tufts University, also noted how storytelling can help envision a better future.
“This sort of space where we can grow from literary imagination—or imagination in general—comes from the kinds of stories we can tell about where we want to go, what abolition looks like, and how we build out of or build beyond this sort of contemporary moment,” she said.
“When we’re thinking about how we imagine our way out of this and then make that imagination manifest, we have to turn to the creative energies that whiteness and anti-Blackness is constantly trying to stomp out of us,” Bain continued.
“If we have no energy in order to imagine our way out of the systems that we’re in, then we will never get out of them.”
Watch the full event here.