Class and Intersectionality at the Law School and in the Law

Joe Charlet '18
Guest Columnist

A version of the following was presented at the Dinner Table Series on November 15, 2017

Class fascinates me. Part of my fascination stems from the fact that Americans have eschewed the explicit stratification seen in the British social class system, yet class has always felt inescapable in the United States to me. The existence of sometimes overt and sometimes subtle distinctions in manners, speech, and expectations of what life looks like requires people to learn   how to do an interpersonal dance in order to succeed in a variety of contexts. But with class, as with all things, the burden of learning the performance—and the consequences of failing to do so—falls disproportionately on the most economically and socially marginalized.

The distinction between the economic and social components of class is particularly important. To me, economic class is something that can be measured objectively by analyzing wealth, which makes it distinct from social class, which is more subjective as it is performative and participatory. Economic and social class are clearly related because social class paradigms are based on economic class and the performative aspects generally require economic outlays, some greater than others. However, it is clear to me that the two are not synonymous, and people can move through either economic or social classes without moving through the other.

I think we intuitively understand that people can concurrently exist in incongruous economic and social classes. One example is our president, Donald Trump. While he probably has less money than he contends, he is unmistakably in the highest economic class. Yet there are a lot of people who see President Trump as occupying a much lower social class because he seemingly lacks the refined taste many associate with high social class. The way in which he tries to ostentatiously act out his economic class is precisely the reason he fails at performing the role required by the correspondingly high social class. He seems to fail to understand the nuances of social performance that his peers and “social superiors” expect, but he also seems to consciously choose to rebel against that expected performance just as often. Unlike most people, President Trump can choose to ignore or not learn social class performance because he started life in the highest economic class and thus has been protected from suffering meaningful material repercussions. 

This is why I am interested in talking about class. Here at the law school, every one of us will end up at the very least in the relatively high and broad professional social class, though given the disparities in pay in the legal world, we will also end up in wildly disparate economic classes. But exactly how successful we will be on our respective paths seems more influenced by our class before law school than it should be—and influenced much more than we seem to discuss. 

Part of the reticence to talk about class is because both economic and social class discussions have been subsumed by other needed identity-based discussion. Class expectations often are influenced by sex/gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, regional background, and other salient attributes like disability, and many social movements have developed around those needs. But class affects everyone, even people who do not have what are commonly understood to be marginalized identities, and for that reason I think it is important to discuss as a standalone topic, just with an intersectional vantage point. After all, a huge barrier to the American ideal of economic class mobility is social class since economic class mobility requires success in networking, interviewing, finding mentors, earning promotions, etc. All of these activities require social-class performance, and the people with power in these situations often interpret and scrutinize someone’s class performance through assumptions based on her identity, either consciously or unconsciously.

This scrutiny has shaped my entire life. I was born and raised in the American South. I was given up at birth by my biological mother and adopted into an all-white family to be raised in an all-white place. I was later effectively orphaned again as a young teen and emancipated myself out of foster care. I am also gay. Both in spite of and because of all this hardship, I actually got a full scholarship to attend a private boarding school for my last two years of high school and then I went to Yale on 100 percent financial aid for college. Now I am here at UVa Law, yet another elite institution. So in an effort to begin a larger conversation about class, I want to highlight some of my experiences as a particularly poor and dispossessed person in this country, who effectively leapfrogged from the bottom economic class—and certainly a lower social class—to potentially the top economic and a much higher social class. 

When I was eighteen, the summer after my freshman year at Yale, I was in D.C. working for my senator. This was an incredible experience, but a particularly stupid short-term economic decision because not only did I give up making money during the summer, I was also spending more money than I would have otherwise because D.C. is more expensive than going back home where I could have stayed with friends for free. So, unsurprisingly, for a short period of time at the end of the internship when I lost the fellowship housing I had, I was homeless. I remember going to the Gallery Place metro stop to beg for change where many others who were experiencing homelessness very differently than I was were also congregated for the same purpose, since there is so much foot traffic there. Within two minutes I probably had more than $10.00 worth of change and a lot of sympathetic words whereas everyone else who had been there for much longer did not have anywhere close to that amount and were treated far more distantly. 

The reason for the disparity was obvious. Though I do not remember exactly, I am certain I was wearing a Yale shirt, since my wardrobe at that time was mostly shirts I had gotten for free from college events. I do not want to overly psychoanalyze passersby with whom I had ten-second interactions, but I think it is fair to say that my shirt and my relatively clean appearance made me seem worthier of their even deigning to listen to my plea for money. Additionally, I was the only person asking for money who could directly approach people effectively rather than sit passively and hope someone paid attention. Certainly my relatively light complexion played a role in that. I have always felt that people are much less intimidated by being randomly approached by me than by other African Americans with darker skin, despite the fact that I am so much larger than average people, which seems like a more rational reason to find a stranger imposing or threatening. Another reason I could approach, though, is I am physically able, while an inordinate amount of the other people asking for money that day had mobility issues from lost limbs or unattended-to injuries. So I was certainly perceived to be in a higher social class simply due to my appearance, but in all the ways I was not, my appearance also led to more favorable interpretations of how I asked for money.

For a slightly different and perhaps more controversial view of class, take my youthful interest in joining the military. I felt and still feel very strongly that there is a moral imperative to serve your country and not leave truly difficult service to others. Beyond that, it seemed like military service might be a practical way for me to alleviate my economic issues by giving myself stability through work and a measure of social respect I could build upon once I left active duty. 

However, this path seemed unavailable to me because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I was six years old when President Clinton implemented the policy to lighten what was previously an outright ban, and even this so-called lighter policy was not repealed until after I graduated from college. As I became more aware of how immutable my sexuality actually was, the military became less  of a viable option because I could not risk getting dishonorably discharged and being left with nothing. So while the military is probably the most integrated part of our country in terms of race/ethnicity and economic class, my inability to ensure that I could fit into and consistently perform in a social class so predicated by law on a certain view of heterosexual masculinity kept me from ever pursuing this path. Fortunately I had less precarious academic opportunities for advancement as well, though I deeply respect all the other LGBTQ+ people who chose to join regardless, and I recommend reading the accounts many have shared to the news media for some firsthand accounts of how Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell affected their service.

Another issue I have always noticed is people treating the Southern accent in all of its forms as some sort of marker of intellectual inferiority. There are countless times when I have seen people dismiss good ideas or completely discounted the entire person simply because of the effect of that voice. I have mostly escaped this because I saw the school speech pathologist as a child because of a speech impediment, and consequently learned to speak more in the accent-neutral way of news anchors. 

Outside the South, parts of the bias against the Southern accent can be somewhat, but not completely, overcome by high socio-economic class markers. For instance, President Clinton, one of our drawl-iest presidents, went to Georgetown and Yale Law. He is often characterized as brilliant, noting his education, but usually this recognition is despite his voice, which is condescendingly seen as a tool that connects him with lower class voters. Similarly, President Bush, son of another President Bush, who went to Yale and Harvard Business School, is not seen as smart despite the trappings of his education, and most people connect their perception of his intellect to his drawl. However you feel about the relative intelligence of either of these presidents, I have always noticed how their intellect has been discussed through the lens of their accent and regional background. 

So what does this have to do with the law school and the law? As you may have noticed, like most professional arenas, the legal world is focused on elite things—elite schools, elite clerkships, elite jobs, elite clients, etc.—even in areas where some of those considerations seem inherently counterproductive like in public service roles. Unsurprisingly, there is an overlay of class on these trappings of elitism, and it makes navigating law school and the legal world surprisingly difficult if you do not come from an economic or social class that overlaps with it because you have not been taught the interpersonal dance required to present yourself effectively. It also affects how we interact with our clients, since many people from high economic and social classes have not been taught to understand or maybe even consider that people from other classes might interact with them and the world differently. A lot of this is implicit, so even when people are not consciously considering class distinctions it is probably still coloring their experience with others.

I would like to use one of my favorite parts of UVa Law to begin to illustrate this. One of our greatest assets is how engaged and open professors are in our community. The fact that students can talk with them in office hours, have lunch with them, work on their research, and see them out in the wild is a unique and truly wonderful opportunity to get even more out of our law school experience than our peers at other schools. It is also an opportunity I personally struggle to utilize. 

I often literally have no idea how to talk to professors outside of class. If I do not have an actual question about whatever subject they teach, I just assume I have nothing to talk to them about because I have internalized my old economic- and social-class identity even though neither are strictly true anymore. I am lucky that seemingly every law professor in the world went to Yale Law, so I can use New Haven pizza and its status as the best pizza in the country as a conversation crutch, but beyond that I falter. 

Yet I watch so many of our classmates develop relationships with professors seemingly effortlessly. It is not truly effortless since students are putting so much work into their studies and building off that to connect with professors, but there seems to be something more than just diligence at play. For some people that ease seems to come from family connections, shared experiences, and other class-based distinctions that other students from different socio-economic backgrounds could not hope to share with our professors. I want to highlight this disparity in particular because professor relationships are so important to tangible outcomes like getting clerkships or highly competitive government jobs. 

I think UVa Law does a good job at partially alleviating this structurally by having small-section professors with an expected pseudo-mentorship role, through professor lunches, and through other formal and informal activities that provide access to professors. But even with access, I feel a heavy sense of reluctance to engage in even light conversation with professors since the answer to almost any personal question I might be asked would reveal either how poor or tragic my life has been. I do not want to be seen as a downer or be pitied, and I expect others might be motivated by the same reluctance. I am also reluctant to ask the questions I am most interested in asking out of fear of committing an unknown faux pas and being seen as stupid.

Contrast that class performance anxiety with another form that I find much easier cope with. As the 2Ls and 3Ls know, and the 1Ls will soon know, once you get to the interview portion of the job search, your desirability as a potential hire becomes much more about personality fit since employers have already reviewed your credentials. But because of the relatively small amount of time any student has with any one interviewer, the interactions are more akin to speed dating than anything else. But unlike more amorphous interactions with professors, there is a certain set of vocabulary and select appropriate experiences to discuss. Identifying what these are and how to approach them is one of the ways our career services provides such a valuable service to us.

Yet knowing about the topics is one thing. Actually being able to interact with the class implications of these topics is entirely another. I think the best example is one callback lunch I had where the entire discussion centered on international travel. Luckily I have been fortunate enough to travel abroad on fellowships to do research and for other privileged reasons such as accruing airline miles from reimbursed business travel. But in every interaction I have like this, I cannot help but think of both former foster youth and also my friends here at UVa Law who have never traveled abroad. What do you do when associates and partners are judging you based on conversations about things you have never been able to experience like international travel or ski vacations? If you are a woman, do you worry that you seem less fun than similarly situated men? If you are a racial minority, do you worry that you are playing into a stereotype about your race? How can you control your perception if you cannot perform as people from a higher socio-economic class expect you to be able to perform?

Due to my unique life experiences I am probably more consciously aware of class than others, but this is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of the issue. We are all affected by class and perform roles in certain ways based on class every day that are unique to our circumstances. Hopefully sharing a small bit of my views on and experiences with the intricacies of class and the way intersectional identities further complicate it as a topic can help spark a broader conversation on the barriers class creates and how to be more thoughtful about the role we play in the strength of those barriers here at UVa Law specifically and in our lives more generally.