Remarks from Student Bar Association (SBA) President Jordan Rhodes at June 2nd Miami Law Teach-In on "Racist Police Brutality and the Role of Law, Lawyers, and Law Enforcement in the Problem and its Solutions"
When I was first asked to speak at today’s panel, I was uncertain of how I wanted to deliver my message. How can any one person deliver a message that can be inclusive of the experiences of all Black students at Miami Law.
The panelists today will talk about police brutality nationally, and what has led to the most recent protests in Minneapolis and across the county, which is an incredibly important conversation to have. However, after speaking with other students and after careful consideration, I decided that today, I want to share my own experience as a Miami Law student and share the experiences of others. It is often easy to think that racism, implicit bias, or microaggressions happen somewhere else to someone else. However, many Black students experience these things every day in our own law school, so it is imperative that I discuss them today.
After spending four years at the University of Florida, I was uncertain where I wanted to pursue my law degree. Microaggressions and explicit racism were common at UF—(students wrote racist epithets on chalk boards, hosted black face parties and vandalized the African American Studies building). After these experiences, I wanted to learn the law in a different environment—an environment where I did not have to constantly defend my existence—an environment where I was not the only Black student in a classroom of 30.
Originally from South Florida (and having been raised a loyal cane thanks to my dad) I thought there was no better place than sunny and culturally diverse Miami. Like so many other students of color I know, I made a conscious decision to attend Miami Law because I was craving diversity and inclusivity. Not the kind that is marketed in pamphlets at almost every institution of higher education across the country—but the authentic kind. The kind that exists when Black students (and other students of color) are proportionally represented in the classrooms. The kind where we are not just taught the laws but taught to question their very existence because as every Black student already knows, our country, and our laws, were founded on slavery, thrived on slavery, and bear the racist, oppressive marks of that system still.
Unfortunately, I realized as soon as orientation at Miami Law that what I thought could be a change for the better was simply another iteration of the same. Suddenly realizing that we did not get what we signed up for is something that many Black students (and students of color) at this institution have personally told me is an experience they share.
Nothing can prepare you for being a Black law student and having to read case opinions written by racist justices and hold them in high regard because “it’s the law.” Nothing prepares you for what it feels like to be tested on laws that on their face seem neutral but were in fact written by privileged white men with the intent of protecting their privilege. Nothing can prepare you for the frustration you feel when you study criminal procedure and constitutional law and begin to fully comprehend just how racist our laws truly are—both in their implementation and in their interpretation. Racist because they maintain a social structure that contributes to the continued oppression of an entire race.
Sometimes worse is hearing the way classmates speak as though racism is a history lesson, not a condition of our daily lives. Although it may not always be intentional, hearing students describe segregation or talk about Brown v. Board as if it they are this thing in the distant past and as if its effects can no longer be felt today takes a toll. Because these wounds have yet to even scar over. Certainly not for a student like me, the daughter of a Black man that was born in the 1950s and raised in the deep south. A man who spent his early years of education in a segregated all Black school in Tennessee.
And really, nothing can prepare you for having to experience all of this while being one of 5-8 Black students in a section of nearly 100.
I do not speak on behalf of all Black students. We each have our own voice and we each have had our own experiences. But in my time here at Miami Law, I have realized that for many Black students, there does reach a certain point where having to deal with the environment becomes overwhelming.
For me, it was after a police officer came to my classroom to discuss her experience patrolling the Coral Gables area. She first recounted a PR slip up in which she referred to a suspect as “mulatto” on twitter (which for those that do not know, derives from “mule” and is a derogatory term that implies the inferiority of multiracial individuals, like me). However, this action and recount of this story by the officer is forgivable.
But she then described something else. A policy employed by local officers to not arrest University of Miami students found with drugs. “We don’t want to ruin their futures,” she said. I thought to myself: I wonder if this policy is employed in Liberty City or O-Town, where young people also have futures that should not be ruined—but I obviously knew the answer to that already. The University of Miami undergraduate school (as of 2017) enrolls about 13 percent of students from the top 1 percent of the income scale nationally. So, it is not surprising such a policy exists to protect the privileged at the University. But what hurt me that day was that this officer openly discussed this unequal treatment to a class of law students and a law professor and clearly had no idea how horrible and unjust this practice truly is. And worse yet, as I looked around my classroom of 70 or so students, I could count on two hands how many shared my disappointment.
That’s my story. But it isn’t the full story. I can tell you more stories of professors that routinely play videos of police violence against Black people—trying to make a point or to teach the class—without any sort of trigger warning for students of color and without any regard for how these images feel to watch as a Black person in America. I can tell you stories about a torts professor that used recent killings of Black people by police officers as stand-your-ground hypos, asking the class to “analyze the facts.” I can tell you stories of insensitive things said in clinic classes by students that represent Black and Brown clients. I can tell you stories of professors that routinely look to Black students to “be the spokesperson for the race” as a way to educate the class on racism. I can tell you stories of professors that rely on Black students to regulate the class whenever talks about race and racism “get out of hand,” or ones that simply ignore racist remarks altogether at the detriment of Black students.
I understand that talking about race and racism’s impact on our legal system is difficult. But so is living it. And I think Miami Law, as a community has a duty to properly educate its students while being considerate of the students of color in the classroom.
For those that think race isn’t in the law, then you are part of the problem. Just watch Ava Duvernay’s 13th on Netflix (or read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”) to see how mass incarceration essentially functions as modern day slavery. Even something as seemingly neutral as today’s local land use and zoning regulations derives from Jim Crow segregation. Race is in everything. It is just a matter of how aware you are or more concisely, how aware you’re willing to be.
I do want to say that there are many aspects of Miami Law that give me hope. Our clinics and street law program directly benefit the local community. There are professors that provide courses on questioning and dismantling systems of oppression. There are faculty that are able to not only navigate class discussions on race, but also respectfully encourage them. And there are many at Miami Law working hard for meaningful racial justice through policy or direct service work. However, this does not change the fact that many Black students are still hurting.
I have some final thoughts I would like to leave you all with. Yesterday, as Student Bar Association President, I sent an email to the entire study body responding to the recent killings and provided educational resources on systemic racism. It took me two whole days to type just a few paragraphs because I was so worried about not offending anyone. Each word I typed and retyped was a conscious effort to not isolate those who do not understand, or who are unwilling to understand, all while trying so hard to not lose my message. My message that Black people are hurting right now and non-people of color should educate themselves and do better. Each revision I asked myself: “How do I come across as professional?” “How can I make sure my words are not misinterpreted?” “How do I not sound like an angry Black woman?”
This was such a draining process and I realized it is a perfect metaphor for what so many of us Black students feel on a daily basis. Many of us worry about maintaining professionalism, but professional standards were not set by us or for us. Take a moment to think about this—I live in a world where my own hair is seen as so unprofessional that laws had to be passed in order for me to wear it how it naturally grows out of my own head without fear of punishment.
This and all of the other issues I have discussed here today are just a glimpse into how life and law school education of Black students can be so different from that of their non-Black peers. It is my hope that Miami Law, and any other law schools listening, rethink how they educate their student body, support their Black students, and actively contribute to dismantling this oppressive system. Now is not the time for simply being “not racist.” We must all take steps toward being antiracist, and actively fight against the systems that have been strategically implemented to oppress Black people.
Much of the racism and inequity we see today is a direct result of laws passed over centuries. So, I look to law schools to dismantle these systems of oppression and build a more equitable tomorrow.
Recommended Educational Resources
- “Who Gets to Be Afraid in America?” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
- “America’s Racial Contract is Killing Us” by Adam Serwer
- Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement (Mentoring a New Generation of Activists)
- The 1619 Project – articles available via The New York Times Magazine
Movies and TV Series
- 13th – available on Netflix
- Just Mercy – available to rent
- The Hate U Give – available to rent
- When They See Us – Netflix
- Fruitvale Station – available to rent
- Selma – available to rent
- American Son – available on Netflix
- If Beale Street Could Talk – available on Hulu
- 1619 (New York Times)
- Code Switch (NPR)
- Intersectionality Matters! (hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw)
- Pod For The Cause (from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)
- How to be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
- Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DeAngelo
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
- If They Come in the Morning… Voices of Resistance edited by Angela Y. Davis
- No Name in the Street by James Baldwin
The below Instagram post provides a list of additional anti-racism books (click on the post for details).