Law Weekly Staff
The University of Virginia and the Charlottesville community marked one year since the August 11 and 12 alt-right rallies with a series of events last Thursday and Friday, including a set of panels and speakers hosted in the Law School.
Thursday night’s event at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville featured Yale Law School professor James Forman, Jr., author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” a 2018 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Forman was introduced by University Provost and Executive Vice President Tom Katsouleas, who noted the importance of trying to understand the biases and underlying racism that led to the tragedy of August 11 and 12, 2017. After Katsouleas’s introduction, UVA hip-hop Professor A.D. Carson performed a surprise rap about police brutality, leading into President James E. Ryan ’92’s introduction of Forman.
Forman grew up in Detroit and Atlanta, coming of age in the tumultuous ’70s and ’80s. He recalled—to begin his discussion in Charlottesville as well as in his 1991 Yale Law Journal note Driving Dixie Down—watching with disgust as the African-American janitor at his nearly all-black high school in Atlanta raised the Georgia state flag, which at that time contained a miniature of the Confederate battle flag. His parents met during the civil rights movement; his mother was the white daughter of British aristocrat Jessica Mitford, while his father was a prominent black leader active in the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The effect of racist society had real effects for Forman; in the year he was born, the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia overturned the anti-miscegenation laws that made his parents’ interracial marriage illegal in swaths of the country.
Forman’s talk focused on the myths underlying white supremacy—namely that blackness is inherently violent—and on American society’s inability to respond to white-on-black violence. He mentioned Dr. Paul Barringer, the racist medical doctor who headed UVA’s faculty from 1895 to 1903 and who believed abolition of slavery was wrong and that slavery was a positive good that controlled people of African descent’s supposed natural impulse for criminality. These myths, Forman argued, underlie the justice system’s targeting of black Americans and its inability to handle violence against blacks committed by whites. The KKK stands out: based paradoxically on “law and order,” it perpetuated violence against black Americans with impunity. Forman also mentioned Dylann Roof, the mass murderer who killed nine black worshippers at a church in South Carolina in 2015. Forman pointed out that when Roof committed that atrocity, the question everyone asked was, “What is wrong with this kid?” encapsulating the inability and unwillingness of the American mind to deal with white-on-black violence.
Despite his thorough condemnation of American attitudes toward race and criminal justice, Forman ended his talk on a hopeful note. Insisting he is not naïve, Forman urged members of the crowd to participate in “maximum allyship,” which begins with a mindset of being big hearted, open minded, and looking beyond distrust. He acknowledged that it is hard to work with people who hold different views, but making allies means building connections and finding common ground. He recommended starting conversations with questions like, “Where are you from? What are your needs? How did you get here?” and then building on the core values that emerge.
Friday’s events at the Law School were opened by Dean Risa Goluboff and consisted of four panels: Panel 1 – The Body; Panel 2 – Policing Communities; Panel 3 – Institutions; and Panel 4 – Social Mobility. Between Panels 2 and 3, University of North Carolina Law Professor Theodore M. Shaw gave the keynote address.
Courtney Davis ’20 was the student moderator for Panel 1. Davis explained that the first panel “discussed American conceptualizations of race and racism from historical, theological and scientific perspectives. For example, Dr. [Jonathan] Kahn discussed the dangers of making implicit bias the primary explanation for racism. And Dr. [Khiara] Bridges explained how ‘the double-edged sword’ of white privilege is bad everyone and can negatively impact white people too, using Buck v. Bell as an example.”
Asked about her experience on the panel, Davis noted that she was “nervous at first . . . sitting next to such accomplished and intelligent scholars” but became so interested in what the panelists were saying that she “began furiously taking notes.” She is looking forward to reading the work that comes out of the symposium.
Toccara Nelson ’19, who moderated Panel 4, explained how her panel analyzed American social mobility through a race-conscious lens. “Through empirical, anecdotal, and historical data, the panelists discussed how communities of color and other marginalized groups face obstacles in achieving upward social mobility. Panelists discussed such obstacles under the lenses of our social and familial networks, education system, public spaces, and the news. Simultaneously, our panelists presented data showing how non-marginalized identities face such obstacles at more muted frequencies and intensities.” Nelson expressed her hope that the Law School community was enlightened by the whole conference, and she looks forward to more programming of this nature.
Robbie Pomeroy ’19 moderated the policing panel, which he said “brought together the world of academia and the consequences of policing to a real-world situation that had a direct impact on our community.” Pomeroy, too, was optimistic one year after the rallies: “Together we were able to reflect how, in the wake of last year, we can push for more care in law enforcement policies.”