Race, Diversity, and the Law
“Is Race Relevant? A Discussion on Legal Culture” is taking place on Monday February 8th at 1pm in Macdonald Hall Room 202. The panel of legal professionals will discuss racism in law school and legal culture, and identify why these issues are relevant to our experience at Queen’s Law and beyond.
Should we have discussions on diversity in the legal profession at law school?
Adnan: If we are to discuss diversity in the legal profession then it is necessarily going to be as outsiders, since as law students we are by definition not members of the profession (yet).
Studies claim that resumes with ethnic names are less likely to receive an interview over traditional Anglo-Saxon names and that employers are more likely to hire people who look like them. But these problems (if they exist at all) are institutional and, in some cases, embedded in people’s psychological disposition, which make them much more difficult to fix.
There is no harm in discussing the challenges that the legal profession faces at large, but it must be tempered by caution. Apart from general observations about the level of diversity we see reflected in the roster of lawyers at a particular firm, we are none the wiser about the challenges any given firm faces.
Nika: Discussions regarding the legal profession at law school tend to focus on career-oriented events. I would not want to change this. However, I also think some of us came to law school with an expectation that we could engage in critical self-reflection on what it means to be a lawyer—our duties to the public and access to justice, for example. Naively, I had an expectation that I would use law as a tool to remedy injustices, but I was ignorant to the the inequities that the legal profession is fraught with.
I am not sure if the narrow conception of lawyers as technicians—strictly being trained to apply laws to facts—is a new trend, but I do think it unintentionally leads to the exclusion of some topics such as diversity. Although, I am not a lawyer yet, diversity is a subject worth discussing. We need to reflect on the social and institutional obstacles that impede a diverse legal profession and consider what we are losing out on when our profession is under-inclusive.
What, if anything, should be done about issues of diversity facing law schools?
Nika: First, we need to start discussing the definition of diversity. Conversations among law students last year proved that we still do not have a common understanding on what diversity or inclusivity mean. Of course, this is not unique to Queen’s Law—I think we live in an exciting time where people are grappling with these questions.
Students should not grapple with these questions alone. I see signs of the administration starting to take these issues seriously. Still, more can be done in terms of outreach to populations who are underrepresented at law schools. I recognize there are limits to what institutions can do—institutions do not exist in a vacuum; they function within an unequal society—but at the very least we can be conscious of not reproducing or intensifying these inequalities when possible.
It is not simply the case that diversity enriches social spaces; genuine universal participation is a prerequisite for justice. Universal participation implies opening room for various ways of thinking to have equal footing rather than allowing a dominant and homogenous culture to take root. The necessity of diversity in law school is even more significant where students learn, think, and write about topics relevant to justice.
Adnan: It is unclear what it means when we talk about greater ‘diversity’. Does it mean that there should be a greater diversity in the number of visible minorities? Or does it refer to having students with different backgrounds and experiences?
If we are aiming for the latter (which I suspect we are), then we are failing. Few statistics are made available to us that give an indication of what our school’s true diversity is. But if last year’s OCI survey is taken as a gauge, our student body is overwhelmingly made up of students who come from economically privileged families.
Having racial diversity is meaningless if we are drawing students from only one or two social classes that share largely the same life experiences and economic security.
The high cost of education, the long time commitment, and the perception that the profession is only welcoming of a certain class of people probably contributes to this deficit. But what is truly problematic is how little we talk about it. We are satisfied by a largely symbolic racial diversity, and it is about time that we start talking about the lack of economic diversity and consider ways to address it.
Should mandatory curriculum be instituted for subjects such as Aboriginal Law?
Adnan: There have been calls to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by instituting a mandatory course on Aboriginal Law. But I believe this would be a simply symbolic gesture and not particularly meaningful.
If we are to truly reconcile Aboriginal law with our common law, then they must be taught in a comparative perspective. Teaching Aboriginal law in a vacuum, simply to tick a box in the name of reconciliation, does very little to advance the cause.
Courses on ‘perspectives’ or ‘contexts’ on racism in Canadian legal culture similarly carry little meaningful value. Racism is an intensely personal experience—informed by a person’s background and perception of what is appropriate. It seems rather paternalistic to be ‘taught’ what those perspectives are or ought to be.
Of course, this is all a matter of taste. Some students appreciate getting a contextual overview of other people’s racial experiences. But to make such courses mandatory requirements would force the topic on those who do not agree with the premise on which it is taught.
Nika: The TRC recommendation is wise in calling for law schools to adopt a course in Aboriginal peoples and the law. This is different than enrolling in Aboriginal Law. As long as Aboriginal Law is taught from a western perspective, there will be little change. Aboriginal Law does not include indigenous legal traditions, for example. I have no idea what implementing this recommendation would look like for Queen’s Law, however, I do believe it should include changes to our administrative structure—bringing in Indigenous faculty or rethinking the law school culture first established during orientation.
Perspective courses such as Racism and Canadian Legal Culture or Feminist Legal Studies are important. I am not naïve to think that making such courses mandatory would lead to greater awareness or would even be welcome. However, as it now stands these classes can become spaces for insular groups that think similarly. I think existing courses need to incorporate different perspectives.
Whatever we ultimately do adopt as a school, our reasons for doing so need to be well articulated and understood by both the Faculty and student body. Going through the motions without the moral will and intellectual confidence will be superficial and counterproductive to advancing learning.
Is there an existence of “PC culture” or a “chilling effect” in regards to discussing things like diversity?
Nika: The issue of censorship irks me. Everyone should think before they say anything: they should think of the impact of what they are saying, the different ways it can be perceived, and whether it will advance a given discussion. Of course everyone has the freedom of expression, but we are also part of a profession where certain qualities such as integrity and civility are valued. Also, to a certain extent we all censor ourselves. Since coming to Queen’s Law, I have changed the way I talk about many issues regarding diversity. What some people may deem ‘radical’ here is actually quite moderate in other contexts. Even in writing this piece I have taken a gentler approach than I normally would.
I have witnessed how a “PC culture” can stifle thought and expression. However, at this point I think the “PC” label has become a reactionary tactic of labelling any viewpoint that calls for diversity. This undeniably affects whether people who wish to advocate for diversity feel like there is a welcoming environment to do so. Personally, I think using similar terms such as “chilling effect” become a way to silence any thought that goes against the current or status quo. Briefly put, these terms are a distraction and, more often than not, I think they are misused.
Adnan: Free speech on campuses around the country is in a poor state. Much of it does follow from a culture of “political correctness” where any speech that does not conform to the dominant ideology is summarily shut down.
We saw this in the debate on smudging at the LSS meeting only last week. Quite apart from the arguments that were ultimately made, it was quite alarming to see the hesitation with which people chose to express any opinion at all.
Social media crusaders are largely to blame for casting this chilling effect. They use Twitter or Facebook to shame others who express different or controversial opinions into submission. The speed with which a person may be ganged up on social media makes many think twice before expressing any opinion whatsoever, lest they fall victim to the mob-like frenzy of outrage that can develop around even the most benign remarks.
The culture of “political correctness”, apart from sanitizing creative expression, has the rather sinister effect of endowing some speech with a seal of approval while consigning other forms of speech to public vilification.
Such a culture kills freedom of speech, and if we want more active and engaging discussion of any sort at our law school, we must first dismantle this impediment.
Should the law school change its name considering the historical legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald?
Adnan: Two words: moral relativism—that is to say, historical figures should not be judged by the moral standards of the present.
By naming the building after Sir John A. Macdonald, we are honouring an extremely important figure in Canadian history, who also happens to have a very close connection with both Kingston and the legal profession (he was a Kingston lawyer whose former law office is now Sir John’s Public House on King Street).
To the credit of Canadian historians, we do not hold out our historical figures with a faux semi-divinity as Americans do with theirs. To many Americans, George Washington is a saint in all but name. To a Canadian, however, Sir John A. Macdonald is an important man in the nation’s history—but a man nonetheless. He did right and he did wrong, and in naming this building after him we commemorate those wrongs just as we celebrate his successes.
As long as we emphasise both aspects equally, there is nothing immoral in bestowing his name upon the law school building.
Nika: Somebody posted a picture on the internet of Adolf Hitler holding a little girl’s hand. Many people were shocked by this photo. A comment on this post that stuck with me was an individual expressing how this shock was concerning to him. He was troubled by the dehumanization that often happens with dictators who have committed the worst sins against humanity. This dehumanization, he argued, leads us astray from identifying conditions that breed the same type of characters. We have a tendency of dehumanizing historical figures as either completely evil or great people without flaws.
There are two justifications for celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald that I find problematic.
The first recognizes Sir John A. Macdonald had flaws, but also did great things—essentially, the “nobody is perfect” argument. The problem is, Sir John A. Macdonald’s greatness in building this nation was directly related to the injustices he committed to minority groups—a Chinese head tax versus building railroads, and starvation of Indigenous peoples/cultural genocide versus our home and native land.
The other justification acknowledges this reality, but believes a celebration of the figure could open up a dialogue. I do agree with this position, but not wholeheartedly because I am still waiting for this dialogue.
Symbolic acts of addressing racism have their place. They create consciousness and open up dialogue. The motion to open LSS meetings with smudging is a great example. The conversation may not have been completely constructive, but it led the student body to explore underlying questions. How do we create an environment where everyone feels heard, where those who feel they have different views do not feel censored? How do we respectfully convey our views on sensitive topics?
Adnan Subzwari (2L) is News Editor for Juris Diction. Nika Farahani (3L) is a contributor to Juris Diction. Harshi Mann (2L) is Co-Opinion Editor for Juris Diction.