In ‘Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws,’ students will learn through the lens of history and current events

April 13, 2021 — After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Penn State Dickinson Law faculty unanimously passed a resolution condemning violence against people of color.

These were not just words on paper. Though traumatic public events often prompt the sharing of thoughts and reflections without further action, this resolution marked a new beginning introducing changes at Dickinson Law.

A second resolution adopting an antiracist approach to legal education passed unanimously soon after the first. By implementing this focus in the curriculum, Dickinson Law has taken measurable action to combat systemic inequality, which threatens the rule of law.

Faculty worked quickly to institute a new course, “Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws,” that is now a requirement for first-year students. Dickinson Law also implemented a civil rights, equal protection, and social justice certificate students can earn through relevant coursework.

The changes came swiftly, with the course kicking off at the start of the 2020-21 academic year, months after Floyd’s killing.

“A statement is never enough,” said Dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law Danielle M. Conway. “Action has to follow these statements and resolutions. Compassion and commitment animate the work.”

“Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws” invokes critical theory and critical pedagogy, aiming to transform how students see their place and role in an imperfect and still-evolving democracy.

In a paper for the Rutgers Race and the Law Review Symposium, Professor of Law and Harvey A. Feldman Distinguished Faculty Scholar Dermot Groome outlined the additional goals of the course.

“As educators, we must recognize our unique opportunity and important responsibility to combat racism in our educational mission. We must do more than transfer legal knowledge and skills to our students. We must cultivate within them a principled, enduring commitment to work for true equality over the course of their careers and practice law in a way that promotes equal treatment of all. To do this, we must reconsider not only what we teach but how we teach it,” wrote Groome.

The course examines the root causes of systemic racism through the lens of history and current events. Students learn why landmark legal decisions from the civil rights era have not realized their potential in changing the day-to-day lives of people of color. “Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws” also relies on the principles of shared praxis, an approach to teaching grounded in critical pedagogy, to help students explore the sources of law and justice that can be used to address the problems.

Students are asked to develop their own responses to the material as law students and lawyers. Session topics include “Using the Law for Change,” “Capitalism and Commercial Law,” “Slavery: Historical and Modern Privilegia,” and more. Lawyers, community leaders, and alumni address the students on these topics, sharing their perspectives to illustrate concepts with real-world examples.

Dickinson Law’s second- and third-year law students have become involved in the course as well by researching, drafting and editing materials for the class. The course includes breakout sessions for students to discuss what they hear and read, which has facilitated difficult, important conversations about race and the legal system.

“I think the class has raised a lot of awareness,” said Campbell Goin, class of 2022, president of Dickinson Law’s Black Law Students Association. “When 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls [first-, second- and third-year law students] go into the workforce, they will be better prepared. Speaking to classmates, I think they have become more aware culturally and politically.”

Deborah Osborn, class of 2022, another second-year law student who has assisted with creating materials for the course, has seen the benefits of raising awareness.

“We are not just adding diversity to our student population. In class, we are also discussing issues that can affect some people’s everyday lives. Some of us may not have been cognizant of these issues, but we will be moving forward,” said Osborn.

Conway notes that for an antiracist teaching curriculum to truly take hold, it must be practiced, not just spoken about. Acknowledging systemic inequity and practicing the tenets of antiracism is a concerted choice done for the purpose of strengthening society.

“Good processes, good approaches and good governance in building an equitable foundation are supported by muscle memory. The more we practice these approaches to equity, the stronger our structures of equity will be in service to our communities,” said Conway.

By adding the “Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws” requirement to the curriculum, Dickinson Law faculty, staff and students uphold the pledge to deliver its program of legal education on an antiracist platform.

“I have seen the muscles stretched in how the faculty and the staff engage in workshops to interrogate their own teaching, to think about how to address conflict, how to seek out resources and not be afraid to lean in on this work,” said Conway. “It does not mean that every new challenge does not feel like a huge mountain. It means that their leadership and their commitment to this work will allow them to face that mountain.”

Email Dickinson Law’s “Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws” team to coordinate a virtual presentation or to share questions and comments.

For additional resources and to learn more about “Race and the Equal Protection of the Laws,” click here.