Why we are teaching Law and Race at the University of Bristol

By Dr Foluke Adebisi, Teaching Fellow (University of Bristol Law School).

‘Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world.’ — Paulo Freire, Brazilian Philosopher and Educator

In the 2018/2019 academic year, Yvette Russell and I will be (for the first time) teaching a unit called Law and Race. It is a very exciting prospect, not least because there are very few law schools in the UK who teach race in any direct or focused way, and much fewer have a unit dedicated to race. This has been an intellectually stimulating enterprise for both of us, and in this article, I would like to explain why we have embarked on it and what we hope to achieve.

The history of the world can be perceived as the history of continuing inequalities. Oftentimes, race functions as the motivation for and justification of oppressive social, cultural, economic and political structures. This is evidenced by colonisation, slavery, and persistent global racial inequalities that cut across gender and class. Law has often been used to create, justify or maintain these demarcations. Notwithstanding this, legal study often ignores the correlation between race and law, as well as the paradox inherent in the use of law to both oppress and liberate. In our unit we aim to examine legal history and the current state of the law in a critical exploration of how legal evolution has impacted upon and caused racial disparities, and how these factors are continuously consciously and unconsciously embedded and reproduced within the operation of law.

Even though most scholarship on race and law originates from the US, we centre our content on the relation between law and race in the UK. To this end an examination of law and race through the creation, maintenance and purported cessation of British imperialism is vital. Of key importance here is emphasis on how global power structures that persist today were produced, reproduced and are upheld.

The unit sits within a paradigm that speaks to decolonising the legal curriculum specifically and decolonisation of knowledge generally. Decolonisation of knowledge involves the de-hierarchisation of knowledge. It involves acknowledging and confronting the hierarchies and exclusivities upon which we have built our world(s). It asks us to examine the margins of society and how these have come about. Decolonising the curriculum seeks to repurpose our study of law, so that it listens to the voices of those who have historically been silenced. That is the overarching aim of this unit – filling in with our students, the missing pieces of the puzzle of what the world has become and how it has become so.

Consequently, we must focus on the paradox of the study of law being historically complicit in oppression but retaining the power for liberation. As states continue to become increasingly interdependent, the laws that regulate inter-state relations should remain cognisant of how those relations developed, as well as the impact of those laws on individuals’ freedoms and liberties.

When other variables are accounted for, people of different races and genders are treated differently by social and institutional structures; people of different races and genders have different experiences of employment, education, use of public services etc.[1] Race-unconscious structures and policies resulting in racially disparate outcomes call into question our understanding of objectivity, universality and neutrality. An examination of this concept of unobjective objectivity – what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls perspectivelessness – will enable our students anticipate the sociological implications of law.[2]

This is a third year unit that we have designed to fit in to the 10-lectures-10-seminars format. Assessment will be by 2 pieces of coursework. Our readings are as diverse as the variate lived experiences of our students. We have included historical, literary, sociology, political and philosophical texts in our readings. I am particularly looking forward to the law and literature classes in which we will use different literature texts to illustrate how productive ruptures manifest when articulating the place and form of race in the intersection of law and literature. There will also be 5 cases studies in the format of ‘Law, Race and X.’

Yvette and I are really looking forward to using our research in this area to examine the co-constitutive nature of law and race in a way that will be intellectually stimulating for our students. We want them to be able to critically examine the nexus of law and race and the impact this has on their lives. We want them to effectively engage in dialogue about race and be able to understand transformative measures needed in our contemporary world. We want our students to be able to appreciate how history informs the present, how it reproduces itself, how much of history is silent. We want our students to be able to critique the law and how the world has been shaped by it and may be reshaped by us. We want our classes to be transformative. As bell hooks says: ‘I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: “We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.”’[3]

We want our students to make a difference in the world. Because ultimately, that is what knowledge is meant to do, that is the purpose of education, that is what the university is for – so that we can really believe that another world is possible, a better one.

[1] Sarah Bunn, Unintentional Bias in Court, Houses of Parliament, POSTnote 512, October 2015 http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/POST-PN-0512/POST-PN-0512.pdf; Lammy Review: Final Report – An Independent Review into the Treatment of, an Outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, 8 September 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lammy-review-final-report ; Race Disparity Audit Summary Findings from the Ethnicity Facts and Figures (2017) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/

[2] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, ‘Forward: Toward a Race-Conscious Pedagogy in Legal Education’ (1994) 1 National Black Law Journal 1-14.

[3] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (Routledge, 2014) 42

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