Excerpted From: Renee Nicole Allen, Get Out: Structural Racism and Academic Terror, 29 William and Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice 599 (Spring, 2023) (385 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ReneeNicoleAllen.jpegThe film Get Out explores the horrors of racism. On the surface, it's a typical horror story. Chris, a Black man, is lured to the home of his white girlfriend's parents so that they can auction off his body, kill him, and implant his brain into the body of a white person. And following a common horror film trope, a Black person is killed in the opening scene. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Chris' planned death is a family affair where each family member--also members of the Order of the Coagula cult--has a key assignment. Rose, the girlfriend, engages in fake platonic and romantic relationships to capture Black victims. Missy, the mother and a therapist, uses hypnosis to paralyze victims and send them to the Sunken Place where their screams go unheard. Jeremy, Rose's brother, captures and kills Black victims. Dean, the father and a physician, performs the brain implants that give white people physical advantages and immortality.

When you dig deeper, it's a story about racism that is far too familiar to people of color. The film's plot involves the murder and appropriation of Black bodies for the benefit of wealthy, white people. Black bodies are auctioned off to the highest bidder; the winner's brain is transplanted into the prized Black body. Black victims are rendered passengers in their own bodies so that white inhabitants can obtain physical advantages and immortality. In subsequent viewings (and after reading a few blogs), three major themes emerge: white liberalism, the Sunken Place, and the appropriation of Black bodies for white social and economic gain.

White liberals espouse commitments to anti-racism but act in ways that closely identify with post-racial racism. Masked in the language of fairness and equity, white liberalism actually further subordinates non-white people.

[W]hite liberalism[] is the actual liberalism that has been historically dominant since modernity: a liberal theory whose terms originally restricted full personhood to whites (or, more accurate, white men) and relegated nonwhites to an inferior category, so that its schedule of rights and prescriptions for justice were all color-coded. ... Though there have always been white liberals who have been antiracist ... they have been in the minority.

Color blindness, benevolent racism, and racial microaggressions are manifestations of white liberalism that mask a system of racial dehumanization. Recognizing that people of color are gaslighted by these subtle forms of racism, Jordan Peele, director of Get Out, said, “Part of being [B]lack in this country, and I presume being any minority, is constantly being told that ... we're seeing racism where there just isn't racism.” Peele strategically locates the story in upstate New York to show racism in a place the audience might not expect and highlights “'the insidious qualities that white liberals have.”’ In Get Out, Dean, the father and a physician who carries out the transplants, reassures Chris that his family is not racist while engaging in subtle racial discrimination and blatant racial violence. We see white liberalism in his rants about deer, having Black servants, voting for Obama, and his father losing an Olympic race to Jesse Owens. We see it again later in the film when, relying on stereotypes about Black masculinity and sexuality, white guests at the garden party interrogate Chris about his physical strength and sexual abilities.

Analyses of the Sunken Place consistently highlight the oppression of marginalized people. It is “recognized as a metaphor for the feelings of helplessness and subjugation that [B]lack people experience in [a] society built on systemic, institutional racism. It also represents the control that white people can assert over [B]lack people through psychological, economic, and cultural oppression.” Peele tweeted, “The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” He also explained, “the [S]unken [P]lace is this metaphor for the system that is suppressing the freedom of [B]lack people, of many outsiders ....” In Get Out, Missy invokes the trauma of Chris' mother's death and taps a tea cup to send Chris to the Sunken Place where he can see life happening on a TV screen, but he lacks agency to do anything about it. His screams go unheard.

While Get Out focuses on Chris, we learn that other Black bodies are taken without authority or right. The appropriation of Black bodies is foreshadowed in the opening scene where we see a Black man abducted and murdered. The murder of a Black character during the first few minutes of the movie appears to be nothing more than a common horror trope and Peele's critique of the lack of representation of Black people in horror films (and films generally). But, we see him again in the film and learn that his body has been appropriated for use by an elderly white woman--her husband's brain has been transplanted into his body. At the annual garden party, unknown to Chris, white guests inspect and interrogate him for potential appropriation. One guest remarks that “Black is 'in fashion [.]”’ Interested in his physical ability, an elderly former professional golfer requests, “[l]et's see your form.” It may become clear to the audience that guests are inspecting Chris for auction when, in what may be the most egregious act of the party scene, an elderly woman whose husband is wheelchair-bound interrogates Rose (the girlfriend) about Chris' sexual prowess specifically asking, “is it true? ... Is it better?”

For people of color, law schools are a metaphorical Sunken Place. Though not literally screaming, legal scholars and law students have been telling stories of academic horror for decades. And since law schools have taken little action to address structural racism, we can conclude our screams have gone unheard. While our bodies aren't being stolen, they are being used to promote diversity and further the appearance of anti-racism. The appropriation of antiracist rhetoric helps law schools capitalize on public personas of racial justice while doing little to address the power structures that protect faculty members who, under the guise of academic freedom, inflict harm on marginalized students, staff, and faculty. In 2020, in the wake of a national reckoning with race, law schools joined the plethora of institutions espousing commitments to anti-racism. But law schools cannot satisfy their commitments to anti-racism without dismantling the policies and traditions that implicitly and explicitly perpetuate racism. In the legal academy, real-life horrors are rooted in structural racism.

This Article is the first to articulate a framework for academic terror--overt and covert faculty behaviors directed at racially marginalized students, staff, and faculty under the guise of academic freedom--in institutions steeped in structural racism. We see academic terror in the classroom and in the broader academy when, for example, law professors assert that there is pedagogical value in using contemptuous terms to reference Black people and actually use them, and when law professors encourage junior faculty of color to not write about race and racial justice. Next, the harmed student, staff, or faculty member reports the incident to law school administration. Often details of academic terror are shared publicly. Then, law deans make public statements denouncing racism and announce an investigation. And finally, with speech and behaviors protected by so-called academic freedom, the faculty member continues to teach, creating opportunities for academic terror to continue to occur. Marginalized students, staff, and faculty are directly and indirectly harmed by incidents of academic terror. And when perpetrators are retained and celebrated, they feel the effects of structural violence. Incidents of academic terror and structural violence make up the system of academic terrorism.

While the definition of academic terror could be applied to any racially marginalized group, my focus is on the academic terror that Black students, faculty, and staff experience as the result of a history of anti-Black racism. The connection between modern marginalization and historical efforts to condemn Blackness cannot be ignored. Falsehoods about Black people were created to justify enslavement and place white people highest on the racial hierarchy; maintenance of the hierarchy required the creation of discriminatory race laws. Black people “deemed neither U.S. citizens or people, existed to merely better the lives of Whites.” Anti-Black narratives continued post emancipation in attempts to prove that Black people were exceptionally disease-prone, better off enslaved, and that the race was heading towards extinction. Condemnation of Blackness exemplified through pervasive negative stereotypes that started during the period of enslavement persists in the ways Black people are criminalized and abused by police. Anti-Black racism is present in every aspect of American life including the legal academy. Thus, even in academic spaces, “[t]o be [B]lack and conscious of anti-[B]lack racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.”

In the Sunken Place that is law school, accounts of academic terror are often met with silence and indifference from people in power. Law schools often fail to examine and acknowledge structural racism when incidents of academic terror occur; such incidents are often regarded as protected by academic freedom without an examination of whether speech or conduct is actually protected by academic freedom. An academic terror framework can help us better analyze incidents of academic terror. Under the framework, when incidents of academic terror occur, we should:

a) apply the definition of academic terror to each incident;

b) evaluate whether a faculty member's speech or conduct is actually protected by academic freedom;

c) evaluate the institutional response by applying the definition of structural violence; and

d) assess the collective, cultural trauma.

This four-step process for analyzing incidents of academic terror allows us to see academic terrorism as systemic as each incident further subordinates racially marginalized groups, not just the student, staff, or faculty member involved. And while academic terrorists should be held accountable for their actions, it allows us to see racism as more than an individual, malicious endeavor. Further, when law schools are genuinely invested in anti-racism, the framework can be used to forestall incidents of academic terror and dismantle structural racism. For example, when examining the ways Blackness is a disability in the law school white space as I argue herein, a faculty curriculum committee could: examine the ways Black students experience academic terror when law is taught without regard to race and social context; provide faculty members with resources to incorporate race and social context into existing required courses; recommend an institutional approach that prioritizes an incorporation of race and social context into required courses; and assess the collective, culture trauma that occurs when the evolution of law is taught without regard to social context, when whiteness is accepted as a norm, and when the application of law is regarded as race-neutral.

This Article explores the relationship between structural racism and academic terror in the legal academy. First, this Article addresses the fact that structural reforms have not resulted from Black trauma being on display in popular media and everyday life. Next, this Article examines structural racism. Specifically, it explores how academic policies, practices, and traditions-- specifically, academic freedom--permit academic terror and protect academic terrorists. Then, this Article defines structural violence and academic terror and articulates an effective framework for analyzing academic terrorism. Next, it outlines an academic terrorism framework, which will allow us to analyze racism in the legal academy more effectively. Finally, this Article surveys anti-racism statements and identifies themes to assess whether law schools aspire to dismantle structural racism and tackle academic terror, or whether the statements are simply appropriations of anti-racism rhetoric for social and economic gain.

[. . .]

Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced. --James Baldwin

Like Get Out, this Article conceptualizes academic horrors that are far too familiar to Black people. In the legal academy, structural racism is the monster, and under the guise of academic freedom, faculty members inflict academic terror on marginalized people. Academic terror--the overt and covert faculty behaviors directed at racially marginalized people under the guise of academic freedom--is pervasive in institutions steeped in structural racism. Marginalized people are directly and indirectly harmed by incidents of academic terror. While academic freedom has few clearly articulated boundaries, racism is an unquestionable violation of academic freedom in practice. When this boundary is ignored and perpetrators of racial terror are retained and celebrated, marginalized people feel the effects of structural violence. Incidents of academic terror and structural violence make up the system of academic terrorism in the law school Sunken Place.

Are anti-racism efforts addressing structural racism and academic terror? Not really. Statements that espouse commitments to change are an important first step. But we cannot begin to change the legal academy until we face our history. We cannot be antiracist until we acknowledge and dismantle structural racism in the legal academy. Certainly, this change will not happen overnight, but we can start by changing the things that make law schools white spaces and make Blackness a disability in the legal academy. This includes changing our physical spaces, what we teach, and how we teach. It also includes holding faculty members accountable for incidents of academic terror and treating academic freedom like the privilege it is.

Only time will tell if the anti-racism proclamations of 2020 are a beginning or a killer ending. For now, the legal academy remains a Sunken Place for many Black people. And while there are no guarantees that the legal academy will ever change, as Baldwin powerfully notes, we cannot change what we are not willing to face.

Associate Professor of Legal Writing and Faculty Director of the Center for Race and Law at St. John's University School of Law.