by Kimberlé Crenshaw
Good morning colleagues, friends and special guests of the symposium. I have the unenviable task of welcoming you to UCLA Law School this morning, a task which under current circumstances carries with it for me quite a few mixed emotions. I've struggled mightily over how I might convey to you that my heart is heavy this morning, but that I am very pleased to see each of you. It's rather like opening the door to welcome close friends into your home which is in a state of utter disarray. Things are strewn all about, you look harried and preoccupied, and you greet your guests stressing about how obvious it is that all is not well in your home. Yet, you know that if there's anyone you can trust to help straighten up the mess and deal with your crisis, its your dearest most trusted friends. In this era, on these issues, at this time, you invited guests are those trusted friends, the ones we can hand a bucket and a brush to and know that you will put some serious elbow grease into helping us straighten out the critical condition in our home. We are so happy to have you here.
I have taught at UCLA Law School for 14 years now and throughout those years I was a proud beneficiary of affirmative action. It is a bittersweet truth to say that I have been here during our wonder years, where UCLA Law was truly a wonderful environment of teaching and learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. Teaching to a racially and culturally diverse student body was both challenging and fulfilling--I've likened each class to conducting a full philharmonic orchestra--our discussion was like a symphony, the music we made together was sometimes discordant, sometimes like cutting edge jazz, sometimes soulfully melodious, and sometimes surprisingly complex. Our extemporaneous performances together always excited me and taught me to cherish the creative possibilities that a multiracial context does provide. Yet this delicate balance now is lost and the music in our classrooms is flat and monotonous. When I step up to the podium today and pick up my baton, I see that my entire string section is just gone--just gone--forget about playing anything that sounds remotely the way it should; the brass section is decimated and the percussion can barely kick out a beat that can push us along. Surely I try to compensate by playing some of the missing instruments myself--I'll jump in the string section to play a few measures, run over to the horns to blow a note or two, try to kick at the timpani on the way back to the podium, but there's no denying it--we simply cannot perform like this. We're not ready for primetime, we're not ready for even a dress rehearsal, we’re not ready for anything.
Now I truly wonder whether we here at UCLA are we willing to accept that the joy, the beauty, the excitement of what we had here is gone? Do we sell all of our orchestral music and say that we're not in the business anymore--do we admit that we produce one-octave, simple melodies suitable for broadcast only on an AM dial? Are we willing to accept that we will do nothing in the face of this loss, but wait until things miraculously get better?
The answer has to be no. But to make that answer meaningful, we have to understand that Prop. 209 couldn't have done this alone. What we're facing is an institutional challenge to rethink our very premises, to challenge the baseline against which we measure what is a preference and what is discrimination. Here's another home truth: a school that has produced hundreds if not thousands of lawyers of color, lawyers who have gone on to make us proud, lawyers who the Public Defender here in LA says are the best prepared, best qualified because they know how to practice and speak to a diverse audience shouldn't have to relearn the lesson that so-called objective criteria should not overdetermine who we should educate and who we shouldn't. Our own experience tells us that test scores and so-called objective criteria do not measure the potential of our applicants. UCLA of all institutions should be on the forefront of rethinking how to distribute opportunity in a truly non-discriminatory way. Like all serious challenges, it takes will and courage to challenge conventional beliefs that limit the possibilities.
This has to be the predicate for a fruitful discourse in this crisis, and in this sense, the conversation we’re to have today has already begun. Indeed, welcoming you to the conference at this point is a little after the fact. The conference, in fact, began yesterday, I believe, and our first presenters were 16 courageous visionaries who took seriously their vision of racial justice in the 21st century and reminded us all of important lessons from our past. Racial justice isn't simply a matter of discourse, it's a matter of action. And as if we have forgotten it, justice delayed is justice denied.
I don't think we often admit how often it is that we learn something from our students, but as I watched each of them yesterday being escorted out of the building, small in stature, tall in commitment, flanked by a half dozen uniformed riot police, I was taken back to similar images from the long historic struggle against racial justice. Perhaps because of today's invitation to think about race in the future along with yesterday's flashback from the past, I began to think about the many ways throughout our history that the promise of the future has been used to deflect the demands of racial justice today, how the allure of time has been used to soothe the pains of racial injustice. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who reminded us that time itself has no inherent value in the struggle for racial justice: it can be as easily mobilized to deny urgent demands as it can be mobilized to achieve those goals. Indeed, time and the promise of the future have had a spotty record in our country's history. It was in 1883 when our Supreme Court told us that enough time had passed so that basic civil rights protections constituted unnecessary special treatment for African Americans who now had to learn to be "mere citizens" rather than special wards of the Court. A few years later, the Court held out to Homer Plessy the remote possibility that time might eventually bring about the social equality which he sought, but of course Plessy himself would not live to see it. It was time that was deployed by the Court in Korematsu to justify the internment of the Japanese and premised relief on the passing of the military emergency. It was the passage of time that Governors Patterson and Faubus, and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy urged students and other protesters to patiently await to quell resistance to integration throughout the South. And of course it was the passage of time that moderate Southern clergy urged Martin Luther King, Jr. look to in order to quench his thirst for racial justice. In each of these instances of racial injustice, people of color have been asked to wait for a remedy, a remedy that was to be found somewhere in the indeterminate future, sometimes even in another lifetime. And in each case of success, people of color have refused to accept the belief that justice is not for us to experience in the here and now, but for some other people somewhere in the future.
So, in the 19th century, African Americans pushed on despite Plessy's promise that we might find equality in the by and by; in the mid-20th century Japanese Americans pressed their claims for justice beyond the temporal limits of their internment; in the modern civil rights movement, SNCC, Core and Little Rock Nine demanded federal protection in pursuit of racial justice despite our Presidents' pressing pleas for more time; and in 1963, from his Birmingham cell, Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the greatest orator this country has known (despite his abysmal GRE verbal scores), penned his justly famous "Letter" explaining Why We Can't Wait.
Of course, then as well as now there are those who will condemn the work of direct action taken to dramatize racial injustice. Dr. King’s lesson to us in the Letter is that bringing to the surface tension that is already there is part of the work of the resister. “[I]t is constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Indeed, Dr. King’s lesson seems particularly appropriate to us here in law school, for he notes that “just like Socrates felt it was necessary to create tension in the mind so that individuals could rise. . . to the unfettered realm of creative appraisal” so too was tension necessary to lift us as a society “to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Of course, Dr. King’s argument presumes that the state of affairs at issue is in fact racially unjust, a proposition that in this context is somewhat surprisingly contested. Like Charles Black’s simple response 30 years ago to Herbert Weschler’s contorted search for the principled wrong of segregation, my own view on the resegegration of UC is similarly simple: when an admissions strategy operates to exclude in a racially disproportionate manner applicants who can succeed in law school and go on to become effective and productive lawyers, then it is racially unjust.
The students yesterday brought these historical lessons to our table for today's consideration. They know that the complacency that sets in once we settle into a crisis and get comfortable with it is difficult to overcome. Waiting to deal with a crisis today turns into tomorrow, tomorrow turns into next year, next year turns into next decade and next decade turns into the next century. And of course, that is exactly what we have done at the end of the 20th century, we've pushed our racial problems into the 21century in hopes that the magic of time will reveal a solution. Surely I am not alone in being impressed with the professed desire of most in our society to reach a world that is racially equitable. I see a desire for it in the images of our future: in politics and in fiction the image of the future is one in which the race problem as it was once known has fallen into history. As a science fiction buff, I find myself often amused by our fictions about race in the future. In Star Trek alone, the entire fleet is completely integrated--not just by humans, but by all species as well. There are no patterns of power, no projections of difference, no systematic disadvantages by race, gender or species. A woman captains a Star Fleet Ship, an Asian captains another, a Black commands the most strategic outpost in the galaxy and of course no one seems to notice. What I notice is the total absence of a narrative that gets us there. And this isn't just a problem of science fiction. Right now in California we are caught up in a futuristic discourse that like science fiction, has no clear trajectory, no mapping of how to get there from here. It as though it'll happen in the by and by, over the long haul. But the future isn't made up of what we do in the future, its made up of what we do and fail to do right now, today.
The middle of the 21st century sounds distant, but look, that's 50 years from today. Some of us might well still be around by then. Its only a decade shy of how much time has passed between the civil rights movement and today. I say this to say that we aren’t talking about generations far removed from us; for some of us, the future is about us, for others, we are talking about our sons and daughters, and for some of us our grandchildren; we are talking about the immediate future. The decisions and policies of today, therefore, have everything to do with that future.
Now lets put this in sharper perspective: those doctors, lawyers, and other skilled professionals who will just be retiring in 2050 are in college now. Those who will be senior in their fields are in junior high and college today; those who will be in the height of their careers are being born today. If the doors of opportunity are closed to current Latino and African American college and high school students seeking to become the professionals of the future, as they are now in Texas, California, Washington and if certain members of Congress get their way, the entire US, then the number of people of color who will be doctors, lawyers and other professionals in the 21st century has obviously declined. And it has declined not by some future historical forces; the number of doctors and lawyers has declined in the future by actions that were taken two to four years ago. Let me stress this--its not simply that the minuscule pace of full integration will still be inching along, it is that decisions made yesterday, and right here and now, have altered the future relative to what it would have looked were we to have projected it four years ago. The future is constantly changing based in part on the things we have done today. And just to put a head on the point, the class of 2002 that will be in retirement in 2050 will still only have 2 African Americans and 17 Latinos. The effects of what we did last year will reach far into the 21st century and beyond.
So what is the trajectory that changes that future that we say we want, one in which old patterns of racial exclusion no longer scar the social landscape? How do we go about bridging the radical disconnects between our broad aspirations and our stubborn reality. Some would say that whatever it is we do, it has to be colorblind. It strikes me that the task at hand is to confront precisely why it is that so many Americans of obvious good will seem to equate colorblindness with racial justice, and fail to see colorblindness itself as a racial preference. As my colleague Luke Harris often says, colorblind works as a racial justice policy in the Kingdom of heaven, not in a post-apartheid society such as our own.
In this post-apartheid society, one in which peoples of color have been urged to tarry and wait, one in which every attempt to achieve racial justice at some point has been framed as a preference, one in which backward movement is as likely as forward progress, one in which the real meaning of race has yet to be fully understood before the urgent quest to set it aside is heeded, it might be understandable that there is a collective failure of imagination in a crisis. Institutions such as UCLA, those that have a rich history from which to draw in refashioning itself in the face of crisis, might be forgiven in its initial moment of shock for resting on its past achievements. But I hope that history will not be kind to any institution that takes more than a momentary delay in confronting the present demands for racial justice squarely and without apology.
So, friends and guests, this is part of the disarray you are here to help us straighten out. We want to be blind to something we really don't well understand. The wealth of expertise and the range of topics we're about to be treated to today cannot possibly be regarded as beside the point. What you have gathered to talk about today is the point and will continue to be, until we get it, incorporate it, and deal with it. RACE in its many ideological constructions, its historical contestations, its material dimensions, its gendered and class resonances, its genealogy and trajectory--these are the topics we are primed to look at and hear today.
So to our colleagues and friends, we're ready to roll up our sleeves and get down to business. Welcome. ·