Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Speakers at Colleges and Universities Need to Be Bolder: Theodore M. Shaw at Washington University

Yesterday, at Washington University School of Law, I had the opportunity to hear Theodore M. Shaw, a noted civil rights attorney, speak about Shelley v. Kraemer, the case that made racially restrictive covenants unenforceable. Shelley v. Kraemer started as a challenge made by a St. Louis family.

When I went to this talk, I expected to hear about how the legacy of the case has affected us today.  I expected to hear about how the world has changed, how it hasn't, why we still live in segregated cities, what crucial things were missing from the Civil Rights Movement, why we seem stalled in our progress toward a society of equal opportunity.

Instead, I heard something that has become commonplace at talks like these: a partial history story, some discussion about how other lawyers and cases were affected, and a lack of societal criticism.

A while back, I attended a similar talk where a lawyer affiliated with the Normandy School District asked the speakers' panel what lawyers can do to make a difference in race equality. The panel responded with a unanimous "nothing." Although Mr. Shaw was not so explicit, his talk unfortunately left out what the alternative answer is.

Since I started law school, I've been told on multiple occasions that the work I do in the St. Louis community is secondary at best. A nice thing to put on a resume. Something that will show employers that I'm committed to St. Louis. An activity I shouldn't allow to get in the way of my studies.

Instead, I should focus on memorizing cases, learning what they stand for, figuring out how they've had an effect on the law that followed them. I should study cases like Shelley v. Kraemer.

But these books on legal scholarship only tell you the history of the law. If you take a drive through the city of St. Louis, you will quickly see the real impact of segregation and discrimination. You'll see neighborhoods that are still segregated, not by law anymore but by lasting circumstances. You'll hear about crime that predominantly occurs in poorer, blacker, bleaker neighborhoods. You'll visit schools that are underperforming that just happen to cater almost exclusively to black students.

Screenshot from Dustin A. Cable, University of Virginia,
In a book or at a law school talk, you'll hear about the amazing impact cases like Shelley v. Kraemer had on America. And of course today we are a more accepting country than we were then.
But when you walk outside the law library, you'll see a world that, for some people, hasn't changed much for the better since the times when certain races were barred from moving into certain neighborhoods.

Maybe we've grown complacent or tired. Maybe we've lived in this world for too long without seeing much change. Maybe we've figured that law students in particular need to shy away from activism because they need to find jobs and employers want employees who keep a low profile so they won't scare away potential clients. Maybe law students need to get big-paying jobs because they're saddled with so much debt that taking on a lower paying position with a nonprofit or in the area of civil rights is insanity. Maybe that's true about all of our idealistic college students, the vast majority saddled with crippling debt, forced into jobs that they're doing just for the money.

Maybe we don't ask our younger generations to take on the risks that generations before did. Maybe that's why we don't inspire them or ignite their passions. Maybe that's why we keep kids in bubbles as they grow up, so they don't have to see how the less fortunate live. There's so little time for distractions from success these days: Do well in school, get a good job, have a family, repeat.

But then, looking around the room of law students as the talk was wrapping up, I had a strange feeling that people were not satisfied. I had a feeling that those listening were unfulfilled by what was said. I had a feeling that they wanted to talk about where we really are today, about how we can change it.

I have a feeling that these bubbles we've created are getting ready to burst. I've got a feeling that real change is coming.
For you older folks who come to schools to talk to us, don't be afraid to ignite the flame.

Elad Gross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Education Exchange Corps. He is also a third-year law student at Washington University School of Law.