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Excerpted From: The HLS Conference Organizers, Critical Race Theory: Inside and Beyond the Ivory Tower, 69 UCLA Law Review Discourse 118 (2022) (93 Footnotes) (Full Document)


criticalRacetheory002Following Derrick Bell's departure from Harvard Law School (HLS) in 1990, decades of law students--primarily students of color--have led activist, litigious, and rebellious efforts to compel HLS to provide a substantive curriculum on race and law and to hire faculty members of color. Notably, in the Spring of 1983, a coalition of students led by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda organized their own fourteen-week Alternative Course titled Racism and the American Law. The course was based on Bell's textbook, Race, Racism and American Law, and received support from outside scholars and HLS faculty. This effort was “designed both to show the HLS administration that talented and qualified minority legal scholars [did] exist and to enable interested students to learn about racism and the development of civil rights litigation.” The Alternative Course is widely regarded as one of the catalysts that sparked the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement.

Despite decades of organizing and contrary to current public debate, most law schools, including Harvard, have not offered CRT courses, hired faculty specializing in CRT, or increased the number of tenured to faculty members of color. While the CRT origin story has been documented by those who participated in it, this Essay describes another piece of the ongoing struggle to solidify the place of CRT and race-conscious analysis in legal education and legal academia. This Essay tells the story of a coalition of students--who are mostly first-generation, queer, women, and racial minorities--who carried the CRT torch of student activism by organizing the First and Second Annual Critical Race Theory Conferences at HLS (HLS CRT Conferences). Our goal in organizing the conferences was to create a space for law students to learn about how structures of subordination are maintained in the United States legal system as well as to learn how we, as law graduates, can work to dismantle these structures in service of social movements. In the end, the organizing process and the conferences themselves became acts of rebellion against a status quo legal education--a system that perpetuates inequality and violence in our communities by teaching students how to maintain the structures, logics, and cultures of subordination in law. The conference also became a radical act of love--an act of “self-preservation, [which is] an act of political warfare” our communities surviving and organizing against the legal structures of subordination as well as for our fellow law students committed to justice, and for ourselves.

This Essay speaks to the current and future generations of law students who are advocating for CRT on their campuses and fighting against the staunch opposition to CRT, all while trying to find their place in the legal profession. As we--the organizers of the First and Second HLS CRT Conferences-- try to understand what it means to practice law in a radical tradition with directly impacted communities, we also pause to share some valuable lessons that we have learned and are still learning from our engagement with CRT both on and off campus. Above all, we hope that this Essay adds fuel to the ancestral fire carried by law students from underrepresented communities on every law school campus. A fire, likely felt by those reading this Essay, that is pushing them to rebel against the status quo legal education curriculum, envision and build radical futures, and use their legal skills in service of social movements.

[. . .]

In all, the HLS CRT Conferences provided us with an intellectual, social, and political home where we could explore questions about the law, our role as lawyers, and how we can be in service to and understand social movements. However, the realities of the legal profession have limited our ability and refined our approach to how we practice law in a radical tradition. While the law and lawyering are not themselves radical, lawyering can be used strategically as a tool for social change. CRT provides us with an imperfect but helpful vision, analysis, and pathway for doing so. The key lesson is that if we as lawyers and law students want to achieve the radical futures that we envision, the way to do so is by organizing. The CRT conferences provided us with this opportunity to organize. It was not the end in and of itself. Rather, the process of organizing the First and Second HLS CRT conferences provided us the learning space to build a community where we can radically envision healing futures, deeply study our politics, and develop a radical analysis of the law and lawyering and sharpen our organizing tools to help build these futures. Unlike the legal curriculum that pretends to be a science, CRT and abolition embrace complexity, contradictions, truth-telling, and humility as a praxis and in resistance to the narratives and logics of white supremacy and settler-colonialism. In short, organizing the CRT conferences, and CRT itself as an intellectual movement, gave us the opportunity to “love, study, and struggle.”

The Conferences were a collective effort. The 2018-2019 HLS Conference organizers included: Felipe Hernández ('20), Melanie Fontes ('20), Li Reed ('20), Julian Nunally ('20), Connie Cho ('20), Rio Scharf ('20), Majid Waheed ('20), Danielle Simms ('21), Mahroh Jahangiri ('21), Dave McKenna ('21), and Chijindu Obiofuma (Columbia Law '18). The 2019-2020 (postponed until Spring 2021) HLS Conference Organizers included: Felipe Hernández, Melanie Fontes, Li Reed, Connie Cho, Elizabeth Ross ('21), Rio Scharf, Juan Espinoza Munoz ('21), Mahroh Jahangiri, Dave McKenna, Chijindu Obiofuma, Iman Mohamed ('21), Olivia Castor ('22), Zoe Russell ('22), and Mary Claire Kelly ('21). In Spring 2020, the HLS CRT Organizers founded The Bell Collective.

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