First Annual HLS Critical Race Theory Conference: Reclaiming Our History of Scholar-Activism

Conference art by Sydnee Robinson ’20

In these perilous times, we must do no less than they [our ancestors] did: fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face, and enables us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed living and humane service.

– Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), 195

Derrick Bell (1930-2011), a civil rights lawyer, a scholar-activist, and the first black tenured professor at HLS, helped found Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) in the 1970s. CRT is a movement that examines and seeks to transform the relationship between the intersections of our identities (e.g. race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and national origin) and state power, violence, and subordination. CRT scholars have three core tenets. First, racism and other forms of subordination are deeply embedded in the legal system and in the ordinary functions of our society. Second, both elite and working-class whites accrue benefits from this system and thus are often induced into helping to maintain it. This is known as interest-convergence theory. Third, racism and other forms of subordination are socio-political and economic constructs used to preserve the subordination of minority groups in an effort to preserve white supremacy.

Accordingly, CRT rejects the traditional civil rights incrementalist approaches and questions theories of “color-blindness,” liberalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. Thus, CRT’s goals are to help lawyers, scholars, activists, and communities build social movements that are anti-oppressive and to dismantle systems of oppression rather than reform them. CRT uses various methods to accomplish these ends, including legal storytelling and narrative analysis of how people are marginalized by systems of subordination. This practice is deeply rooted in Latinx, Indigenous, and Black communities as a way to describe their conditions, unmask the gentility of their oppressors, dream of freedom, organize, and demand reparations. Bell was committed to this struggle and organized to get more faculty and students of color at HLS because he understood that law professors are complicit in preserving the dominant legal system of subordination. If law students are not trained to recognize how the legal system is designed to harm historically marginalized people, then students will go on to harm these communities, too. While his commitment was unwavering, HLS did not accept his asks. So Bell left HLS in 1980. But his teachings, mentorship, and scholar-activism sparked a CRT movement.

History of CRT Activism at HLS

The decades-long battles to get CRT, faculty of color, and students of color at HLS was led by students of color, namely the Black Law Students Association (BLSA). In the midst of national affirmative action litigation,[1] BLSA, La Alianza, and the Third World Coalition carried on Bell’s charge. After years of negotiating with  the HLS administration to provide a substantive curriculum on race and law and hire more faculty of color, the administration only offered a three-week J-term course. After boycotts, a school-wide referendum where over 75% of students supported these demands, and threats to sue HLS for discriminatory hiring practices failed,[2] students walked out in front of Langdell Library. Joseph Garcia (’83), then-president of La Alianza, shared demands for more faculty and students of color and a course on race and the law (i.e., CRT).[3]

In Spring 1983, a coalition of students, led by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda, had enough and organized their own 14-week “Alternative Course” titled “Racism and the American Law” based on Bell’s textbook, Race, Racism, and American Law.[4] [5] Organizers stated that the Alternative Course was the “affirmative vision of what a course which purports to address the needs of their communities can and should be.”[6] With the financial support of student groups, the Alternative Course brought different scholars and practitioners to teach a different course each day. These instructors included Richard Delgado, Lizette Cantres (attorney at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Linda Greene, Neil Gotanda, Charles Lawrence, Denise Carty-Bennia, and Haywood Burns. The course was supported by Critical Legal Studies (“CLS”) professors like Duncan Kennedy, Morty Horowitz, and Jerry Frug who provided students with independent credits for taking the Alternative Course. The course “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.”[7]

The course was immensely popular and demonstrated that the problem was not that there were no faculty of color or critical race theorists available but rather that HLS was acting  as a gatekeeper, preventing qualified scholars of color and critical race theory from advancing. During and after the course, student organizers continued to engage with the HLS administration via public forums to get more faculty of color and a course on race and the law.[8] Student frustration grew when, in response to a question about what faculty members were doing to educate themselves regarding the needs of minorities and women, Professor Philip Heymann stated, “No one ever told you to come to Harvard Law School to learn how to be a woman or to learn how to be a Black …. Those are terribly important things in life, but this isn’t the place for you to come learn them.”[9] Student activism intensified. Then, in 1990, Derrick Bell took an unpaid leave, refusing to lecture again until HLS hired a black female professor. This act of resistance ultimately cost him his professorship because HLS failed to hire a black woman before Bell’s contract expired. Shortly thereafter, the HLS Coalition for Civil Rights in ‘89, made up of the affinity groups on campus, sued HLS claiming that HLS was engaging in discriminatory faculty hiring practices.

The Alternative Course was in many ways the first institutionalized expression of a CRT program at HLS. As a result of this organizing, students pursued careers as CRT scholars, lawyers, and activists fighting to dismantle systems of oppression. We recognize the labor that former and current HLS students and professors invested so that we could organize this conference this week. We recognize the successes achieved through years of HLS student activism: hiring the first black faculty member Derrick Bell in ‘69, founding the Latinx Law Review in ‘94, granting tenure to the first woman of color Lani Guinier in ‘98, removing a slaveholder’s crest from the HLS seal in 2016, and securing a memorial in 2017 in honor of African-Americans whose enslavement enabled the foundation and wealth of HLS.

Student Activism at HLS Today

In many ways, students of color, womxn, and queer folx at HLS are still fighting the same decades-long battles. We are still asking HLS to establish a critical race theory program, hire CRT tenured faculty, more racially diverse faculty, and more womxn. In a recent meeting with the Law School’s Curriculum Committee on April 10, 2019, students asked the Committee what they were doing to hire more diverse faculty and get a CRT tenured Professor. The Committee responded with the same tired response of “we’re looking into it but there are not many candidates and this process takes a long time.” Yet, when asked by a group of FedSoc members to bring more originalist and Conservative faculty to HLS, the Committee responded with “We’ve made two offers.”

As we launch the 1st CRT conference we recognize that in order to bring change, students must organize and demand it. We also recognize that our long-struggle to bring CRT to HLS is deeply connected to other students calling for gender equity at HLS, ending harassment and discrimination in the legal profession, a graduate student union and labor protections, better financial aid policies, ending racism on campus, establishing an HLS diversity & inclusion committee, reparations, divestments from Prisons, establishing a movement lawyering clinic, and ending the US-backed Israeli settler-occupation in Palestine.

The week of the CRT conference was purposefully designed to be a week of liberation. On April 10th the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal had its 35th Anniversary Dinner and celebrated Lisa Owens, the Executive Director of City Life/Vida Urbana (“CLVU”), for CLVU’s continuing fight for Black liberation. Students organized a movement lawyering reading group and campaigned for transnational solidarity to Free Palestine. On April 11th-12th, the Harvard Law Review dedicated their annual Developments in the Law issue to Prison Abolition to center the voices of marginalized communities and those organizing to abolish prisons and police. The organizers of the CRT conference were deliberate in partnering with the Prison Abolition symposium, as CRT is deeply connected to an abolitionist praxis, pedagogy, and movement.

Together, we are reclaiming the student activist tradition of creating physical, political, emotional, social, and academic spaces of liberation. Harvard’s pearly gates are being pried open to bring all of our fam in so that we can collectively mobilize to uplift the voices of those most marginalized, dismantle oppressive structures, and demand justice.

The Long Road to the First CRT Conference

Building on these current student efforts, and 37 years after the first Alternative Course, HLS students are carrying forward Bell’s charge by organizing the First CRT Conference at HLS. The conference is titled “Movement Lawyering: Lessons From and For Critical Race Theory,” because we seek to re-ignite how CRT contributes to the power-building efforts of social movements led by communities and lawyers working to dismantle systems of subordination at the intersection of race and other marginalized identities. Our goal is to bring into conversation practitioners, organizers, scholars, and directly impacted people.

We begin with a recognition of the the Massachuset people whose land we stand on and which was taken for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts via a mass genocide. We also recognize  Belinda who, in 1783, sued her slave master Isaac Royall for unpaid compensation and won, securing an annual pension of 15 pounds, 12 shillings. We also recognize all those who cannot attend because we live in a society that criminalizes and cages with impunity and encourages us to forget those in our community behind the walls or deported. They’re not here because too often brilliance is only acknowledged when it accompanies a certain race or zip code or pedigree or socioeconomic status or gender presentation.

Before the conference, we organized a series of teach-ins on the history of student activism at HLS led by Emanuel Powell (‘19) and history of CRT led by Prof. Melvin Kelley. Then on Friday we begin the conference with a CRT scholars workshop to highlight new developments in CRT scholarship and demonstrate to the HLS administration that there are plenty of well-qualified CRT faculty who are available to teach. This includes scholars like Chaz Arnett (‘06) (University of Pittsburgh), Asad Rahim (‘12) (Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley School of Law), LaToya Baldwin Clark (UCLA), Justin Hansford (Howard), Brandon Hogan (‘08) (Howard), Melvin Kelley (Northeastern), and Portia Patricia (‘09) (Boston University). Then we move on to learn about the origins, developments, and future of CRT with Profs. Montoya (‘78) (University of New Mexico), Devon Carbado (‘94) (UCLA), Emily Houh (University of Cincinnati), Trina Jones (Duke). Next, we bring students and organizers together to build community and reclaim our history of student activism with notable alumni Derecka Purnell (‘17) (Advancement Project), Rena Karefa-Johnson (‘16) (FWD.us), Simmi Kaur (‘17) (Bronx Defenders), Aparna S. Gokhale (‘17) (Simpson Thacher), and Rathna Ramamurthi (‘17) (Cleary Gottlieb) who co-led the Harvard Reclaim Student Movement.

Beginning on Saturday, our panels explore models of Effective Movement Lawyering for Racial Liberation with Raheemah Abdulaleem (’01) (KARAMAH), Kayla Reed (Action St. Louis), Prof. Saleema Snow (KARAMAH) and Blake Strode (’15) (ArchCity Defenders). Another panel engages in the critical discussion of how to build an abolitionist #MeToo movement that is anti-carceral and anti-violent, with  Mahroh Jahangiri (’21), Marissa Alexander (Survived and Punished), Nicole Pittman (Impact Justice), and Ashley Sawyer (Girls for Gender Equity). Then we discuss how to scale up social movements for liberation and what CRT can contribute to these movements with Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Boston University), Rachel Gilmer (Dream Defenders), and Marbre Stahly-Butts (Law for Black Lives). Then we break out into workshops that include “Opportunities and Challenges of Grassroots Abolitionist Campaigns,” led by Critical Resistance, “Managing Power Dynamics in Campaigns,” co-led by Thomas Harvey (Advancement Project) and Catoya Roberts (WISDOM), “An Abolitionist ‘Me Too,’” led by  Juli Kempner (Survived and Punished), Ashley Sawyer, Sejal Singh (’20), Alyxandra Darensbourg (’20), Connie Cho (’20), and Mahroh Jahangiri (’21) and “Black Queer Femme Sensual Healing” led by Reine Noire and organized by Alexis Yeboah-Kodie (’21).

Finally, we conclude with a keynote  moderated by Derecka Purnell, an abolitionist movement lawyer, that brings in conversation Rachel Herzing (Center for Political Education), an internationally renowned grassroots organizer on issues of prison abolition and community-based interventions to address harm, and Prof. Khiara Bridges (Boston University), a leading CRT scholar and professors on issues of reproductive justice,  constitutional law, and race and law. This keynote dialogue seeks to advance CRT toward a new generation of scholar-activism that supports movement lawyers and organizers in their efforts to abolish systems of subordination.

Why HLS needs CRT

CRT was born in these very halls by HLS professors and students. Establishing a CRT program today would ensure that HLS becomes a leading partner in the work community organizers and movement lawyers are doing to make a more just nation. We all recognize the privileges we have gained from enrolling at HLS, but we need a CRT program so that we do not lose sight of why we are here─to advance justice and the well-being of society. CRT ensures that we bring a multitude of voices into scholarship, thus contradicting the notion that academia should exist in some space separate from those voices. We also recognize that HLS alum take on immense positions of power and without any critical examination of the systems they operate perpetuate subordination, these HLS alum will go on to perpetuate harms rather than heal them.

The need and student desire for CRT is overwhelming. In the 2016-2017 academic year, CRT Professor (and our keynote speaker) Khiara Bridges taught seminars at HLS on Critical Race Theory and Reproductive Justice, as well as 1L Criminal Law. Professor Bridges is a legal scholar, anthropologist, professional ballet dancer, and the author of Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization. Both of her seminars attracted extensive waitlists of over 100 students. In the 2017-2018 academic year, visiting Professor and CRT scholar Paul Butler taught Race, Gender, and Criminal Law, Black Lives Matter and the Law, Criminal Procedure: Investigations, and 1L Criminal Law. Neither of these CRT professors is at HLS now. In Spring 2018 and 2019, Professor Kenneth Mack’s CRT seminar had a long waitlist even though Professor Mack does not identify as a CRT scholar. The demand for CRT courses is exceedingly high.

At a time when the world is experiencing an ever-growing expansion of systems of subordination (e.g. wealth inequality, racial capitalism, femicide, climate change, mass human displacement, bolstered carceral and crimmigration states, and rise of white nationalism), law students and organizers must grapple with the question of how to effectively and sustainably fight oppression as it manifests itself in our legal practices, the systems in which we operate, and the lives of those with whom we advocate. CRT challenges all of us to evaluate the foundations, mechanisms, and execution of the law. Through our conference, we hope that HLS students, lawyers, scholars, and activists learn how CRT can provide both legal-theoretical frameworks and practical skills to dismantle systems of subordination and achieve liberation.

We are not alone in working to transform HLS and our world. The First Annual Critical Race Theory Conference is co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association, First Class Law Students Association, Muslim Law Students Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, South Asian Law Students Association, Reparatory Justice Initiative, BlackLetter Law Journal, Civil Liberties-Civil Rights Law Review, Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Racial Justice, National Lawyers Guild-HLS Chapter, and Law and Social Change Program. We also received great guidance, mentorship, and affirmation from Professors Guy-Uriel Charles and Margaret Montoya─Thank you!

We hope that you will join us.

[1] Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978) (Supreme Court ruled that a university’s use of racial “quotas” in its admissions process was unconstitutional, but a school’s use of “affirmative action” to accept more minority applicants was constitutional in some circumstances.)

[2]  Jim Chudy, Peaceful Protesters Demand Faculty Changes, HARV. L. REC., Jan. 21, 1983, at 1

[3] Jim Chudy, Peaceful Protesters Demand Faculty Changes, HARV. L. REC., Jan. 21, 1983, at 1.

[4] See Brad Hudson, TWC Offers Alternative Spring Course, HARV. L. REC., Jan. 21, 1983, at 1.

[5] Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking back to Move Forward, 43 Conn. L. Rev. 1253, 1354 (2011) at 1282  (In the book, Bell argued that liberal civil rights scholarship is antithetical to racial liberation because rights discourse is focused on “reconciling racial equality with competing values such as federalism, free market economics, institutional stability, and vested expectations created in the belly of white supremacy.”)

[6] See George Bisharat, Third World Students Believe Harvard Law Is Symbol of Bias, BOS. GLOBE, Feb. 19, 1984, at A

[7] See Joseph Garcia, TW.C. Alternative Course, Raza Review: Newsletter of the Chicano and Latino Community at Harvard Law School, Spring 1983;

[8] See Brad Hudson & John Morris, TWC Calls for Student-Faculty Forum, HARV. L. REc., Feb. 4, 1983

[9] See Andrea Hartman, TWC to Host Student-Faculty Affirmative Action Forum, HARV. L. REc., Mar. 4, 1983, at 1.

The Organizing Committee for the First Annual Critical Race Theory Conference at HLS

Felipe Hernández, Melanie Fontes, Li Reed, Julian Nunally, Connie Cho, Rio Scharf, and Majid Waheed are 2Ls. Danielle Simms, Mahroh Jahangiri, and Dave Mckenna are 1Ls. Chijindu Obiofuma is a 2018 graduate of Columbia Law School.

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