If you add chocolate, it’s not just milk…

I teach at Wayne State Law School, a public law school located in the heart of Detroit. Under the Michigan Constitution, Wayne State and other public institutions “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

There are lots of reasons to dislike this 2006 amendment to our state’s governing charter, but I figure I’ll give you one more. #MichiganProp2

First, some background. The class I teach, the Business and Community Law Clinic, is a live-client clinic that provides free legal services to Detroit entrepreneurs. Second and 3rd year law students interview the clients and do the legal work. I lecture and supervise everything they do. The students get great experience and the clients get free lawyers. It’s a win-win.

My class also includes a significant community engagement component. My students, most of whom are not from Detroit, are required to attend community events and to get to know the city beyond midtown and downtown. I love my job.

A few final points I should make.

1. Because there are more students who want to take my class (this year 36) than I have space in the class (6), I have to pick the students. I do so using an algorithm based on grades, courses, graduation date, and demonstrated interest in business law.

2. The City of Detroit is roughly 82% Black and 10% White.

3. Wayne Law’s 2014 first year class is 8% Black. That’s higher than in the student body as a whole, which is about 6%.

4. There are 4 full-time Black professors on faculty (not counting legal writing and adjuncts).

5. I am the only Black male, full-time professor on faculty and one of the few native Detroiters.

The law school has a new requirement that all students take a clinic or have some other hands-on legal experience before graduation. Wayne has a great clinical legal program and our clinics touch on a variety of areas, including environmental law, disability law, immigration law, and criminal defense. But with so few Black students – or minorities of any kind – classes can end up with all White students. Since men make up about 58% of the student body, in smaller classes it’s not uncommon to have an all white, male, suburban student body. In my class, this is particularly problematic.

As I said, part of my class involves getting to know Detroit, which means addressing race and poverty and violence and, well, you get the picture. In this small setting, I try to guide the students from behind, letting them feel comfortable saying what they feel and asking what they want to know.  It’s depressing how little young people who grew up in the area (but outside the city) actually know about Detroit. They know more about the obsolete Rule Against Perpetuities than they do about the race riots of 1943 or 1967, or the destruction of the black neighborhoods of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom.  They “know” that Mayor Coleman Young told White people to go North of 8 Mile. (He didn’t.)  And every year I have a student tell me White people face more racism in this country than Black People. (I said I love my job; I didn’t say it wasn’t frustrating.)

This week, colleagues and I were discussing the upcoming semester and I commented that I prefer having a diverse class, diverse in terms of race, gender, and religion in particular. One colleague noted that it was inappropriate to think about race or any other protected class of person when composing the class. (As I noted, I don’t.)  He suggested that diversity could be accomplished by using some other criteria, such as residency. Now, I’m a business lawyer, not a constitutional lawyer scholar, but I did go to law school. (Happy to see my former professors, Michael Dorf and Sam Issacharoff quoted by the NY Times on recent SCOTUS cases.)  I know the rules. I also know that conversations about race and gender and religion can be very different depending on who is in the room. White people talk (or don’t talk) about race very differently when they don’t think Black people are around. (Some White people are wondering how I know this. I’ll let you in on a secret. Not everyone you think is White is White; they’re just very light-skinned Black people not named Rachel Dolezal. And they tell the rest of us what gets said. Seriously.) Men talk (or don’t talk) about gender very differently when there are no women in the room. If you think otherwise, you’re lying to yourself.

In my class, at least I’m in the room. Race gets discussed and the perspective of a Black Detroiter is going to have to be considered. But what about all the other classes? Do you think race isn’t a factor in criminal law or criminal procedure? What about real estate? Or constitutional law? Or finance? Real talk: until social media, cell phone cameras, and cheap bandwidth hit the scene, quite a few White people just knew Black people were lying about how the police treated us. Now that more people realize that isn’t the case, conversations about how race impacts legal institutions and the law should be more productive. But at Wayne Law – and lots of other institutions of higher learning in Michigan – those conversations probably won’t take place at all.

So, as the US Supreme Court prepares to hear another affirmative action case, tell me again why people question that promoting diversity is a compelling state interest.

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