Georgetown Law School’s handling of racially charged faculty comments has been alarming. By imposing orthodoxy and groupthink, the school has been betraying its educational mission and thereby promoting structural racism.
The school has had a run of embarrassing racial incidents lately, most recently when Franz Werro, a professor, could not recall an Asian American student’s name and addressed him as “Mr. China Man.” There was the usual horrified reaction, but it was tempered with unaccustomed generosity toward Werro, who said that as a nonnative English speaker, he was unfamiliar with the racist significations of the term. Even the Above the Law blog, ordinarily a mighty harsh critic of law schools, was willing to cut the man some slack.
A tweet in January by lecturer Ilya Shapiro was less charitably received. He praised his favored Supreme Court candidate while complaining that President Biden would appoint a “lesser black woman.” He soon deleted the tweet and apologized, but Georgetown suspended him pending an investigation into whether he had violated the school’s nondiscrimination policies (and the dean sent out an email with the worst possible interpretation of what he had written). Shapiro correctly observed that “there’s really not much to investigate.” The facts are undisputed: the tweet was stupid, as is the notion that there is a single best qualified nominee. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has a mighty impressive résumé. But this stupid tweet is protected by Georgetown’s academic freedom policies.
But the most ominous episode happened nearly a year ago. Two adjunct professors accidentally recorded a private online conversation, in which one of them complained that many of her worst-performing students were Black and declared that “it drives me crazy.” The other professor wondered whether “my own unconscious biases” were part of the reason. Dean Bill Treanor declared the statements “reprehensible” and “abhorrent,” said that the conversation had “no place in our educational community,” and denounced “bias in our grading process.” He fired the teacher who spoke and forced the resignation of the other, evidently for listening and not objecting.
Treanor did not specify what was “abhorrent” about the statements. I have no idea whether it is in fact true that Black students were clustering at the bottom of the class in question. There is substantial evidence that it happens at some schools, and when it does, it is bad news for Black students.
The dean, however, apparently thinks that, even if it is true, it must not be spoken. He will punish you if you say it, and everyone at Georgetown now knows that. This is the wrong way to combat racism. It in fact reinforces the obstacles to Black success. I’m a law professor myself, and I happen to support affirmative action. But we misunderstand our task if we think covering up facts—or refusing even to investigate whether they are true—is the way to promote equality.
Despite our best efforts, each year 25 percent of our students find themselves in the bottom quarter of our class. We as teachers need to figure out why those students, who entered with impressive credentials, are not doing as well as their peers. The whole rationale for a diversity-equity bureaucracy is that minority students face unique challenges. It would not be surprising if those challenges affect some students’ academic performance. The standard response has been ever more diversity training, but that is generally an ineffective waste of resources. One of its few benefits is inducing teachers to reflect on whether unconscious racism is affecting their work, but these professors were punished for doing did precisely that. We need a set of evidence-based best practices that will help our students succeed.
Students’ feelings matter, of course, because they affect performance. But the point of a law school is not to comfort students but to empower them, to give them the resources to make our society a more just place than it is now.
This kind of repression has lately been associated with the political left (though the right is worse, increasingly codifying such censorship into law). I’ve been on the left all my life. The left I identify with aims at real material change. That project demands attention to questions of causation and efficacy, not what John McWhorter calls “willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.”
A university devoted to truth is an ally of those who seek social change. If you want to have a real effect on the world, then you must think about what works and what doesn’t. One of the best arguments for free speech is that our ideas could be wrong. The best basis for our confidence in them, as John Stuart Mill observed, is “a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”
Racism is obviously a deep cause of the obstacles that stand between the worst-off African Americans and the decent lives they could have. But so are other phenomena that everybody knows about but that many whites are afraid to mention: the Black/white academic achievement gap, the high incidence of Black single-parent families and the disproportionate violence among young Black men. They are themselves products of America’s shameful racial history, but they still have destructive effects separate from anything that racists do today. There are good reasons to be careful when talking about those facts, which are cited with glee by genuine, unapologetic racists. But unless we figure out how to change them, the lives of the victims of racism will not improve. A conversation in which those truths can’t be mentioned is of little use. The path forward is not obvious. We need to discuss frankly the merits of different policy proposals. The community can’t do that without a culture of free speech. If “systemic racism” refers to the complex totality of causal processes that perpetuate the marginal status of so many African Americans, then the orthodoxy that Georgetown Law is promoting operates to reinforce structural racism.