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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Not so Long Ago… Race in Law School

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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This excerpt from a recent Texas Monthly article on the creation of Texas Southern University School of Law caught my eye -

… its original purpose was not to provide black Texans with educational opportunities but to justify denying them those opportunities. In 1946 a young black man in Houston named Heman Marion Sweatt applied to the University of Texas School of Law. He was refused admission because of his race. Sweatt filed suit against the university, and under the warped logic of segregation, he had a good case, because Texas had no “separate but equal” facilities. The trial court delayed the case so that the state could cobble together a law school for blacks, and UT officials announced that it would open one the following year. Its home would be a site south of downtown Houston, where the Houston Independent School District had operated a junior college for blacks with one permanent building and a collection of Quonset huts. In the spring of 1947, the Legislature authorized the purchase of the college from the HISD for $2 million and established it as Texas State University for Negroes. Sweatt still sought admission to UT, but the trial court, ruling that the state had complied with its duty to provide separate but equal facilities, refused to order university officials to admit him.

Only 60 years ago UT law was willing to spend $2 million to create a whole new law school rather than admit a black student. Law school admission has frequently been a focal point of civil rights cases, including Hopwood v. Texas and Grutter v. Bollinger. I’m told the University of Houston didn’t graduate a black law student until 1970. Minorities now represent 25.7% of our student body according to the Law School Minority Report. So the legal community has come a long way in the last 30-40 years. Many would say it has a ways to go yet.

Minority Representation in the Legal Community

The status of minority groups in the legal community has improved of course (See EEOC Report: Diversity In Law Firms); there was no where to go but up. However, minorities continue to be underrepresented in judicial Clerkships (See A Demographic Profile of Judicial Clerks) and are proportionally underrepresented both as associates in law firms, a disparity that is significantly widened in the ranks of law firm partners. According to a 2007 NALP report Women and Minorities in Private Practice, there are 1,335 associates at law firms in Houston and 15.88% are minorities, but of the 1,426 law firm partners in Houston, only 5.4% are minorities. This is in stark contrast to minority representation in other professions. The American Bar Association released a report in 2004 – Miles To Go 2000: The Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession comparing minority representation in the legal profession vs others:

Total minority representation among lawyers is about 9.7 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, compared to 20.8 percent among accountants and auditors, 24.6 percent among physicians and surgeons, and 18.2 percent among college and university teachers.

The Power of the Profession

The importance of this is magnified by the nature of the profession. Grassroots movements and demonstrations were instrumental in providing the social pressure that initiated the civil rights movements but it was lawyers such as Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall who secured the victory by winning cases and promoting the enactment of legislation that recognized and protected the rights of minorities in all aspects of life. Incidentally, one of our professors last year, Anthony Chase, is the son of one of the first black students to graduate from the University of Texas. Should it surprise us that all of his siblings are lawyers as well?

While the imbalance is apparent to just about everyone, consensus disintegrates on the question of what to do about it. From a preference for affirmative action following the civil rights movement, the pendulum has swung the other way in recent years. The Fifth Circuit’s decision in Hopwood which the Supreme Court declined to review, overturned the use of racial preferences in admissions to UT Law School. Pre-Hopwood, usually 30 to 40 African Americans enrolled in the UT law school. Post-Hopwood 11 African American students were accepted to UT Law. None enrolled.

But what does representation represent?

In the recently decided Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Chief Justice John Roberts noted “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race . . . Racial imbalance is not segregation, and the mere incantation of terms like resegregation and remediation cannot make up the difference.” In his New Yorker piece Reversals, Nicholas Lemann focused his attention on the concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, the sole black Justice on our Nation’s highest court, who advocates an ‘absolute prohibition on taking race into account for any reason.’ Many find it baffling that the sole representative of the black race on the Supreme Court takes such a strident stand against affirmative action. Personally, I don’t find anything baffling about it at all. The racism we’re exposed to today is of a different form and it can cut both ways. As Thomas wrote, “What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today.”

In a little comment discussion over at Part Time Law Mom the subject of mixed race came up. My father is anglo, my mother hispanic. I guess that makes me bi-racial, though I’ve never felt like a minority. The issue comes up in unexpected ways, however. At our orientation session last year, one of the first official hoops we jumped through as a newly minted UH law students was to declare exactly what it is that we are. It’s mostly a basic contact form but it contained a demographic information section, with the “check one” treatment under race that has become a particular pet peeve of mine. Are we really that out of touch, Admissions?


Some of us might need to check more than one. Texas did finally decide to get rid of those miscegenation laws, after all. (Incidentally, what a bizarrely interesting practice area this would have been – mestizos were allowed to marry blacks, ‘white’ Mexicans were not. I wonder what the rules of evidence were for that one?) I seriously doubt there’s anything all that sinister going on here with this data, though I have no idea what it’s used for. The issue it raised for me though was this – is that really a question I want to have to answer?

What kind of statement am I making when I check one box but not another? Have I added or diminished anything from the student body, my legal education or the bar to which I aspire? Do I influence the admittedly fuzzy calculus of the admissions process? Does it change who I am or how hard I study? Does it change the perceptions of my achievement or advancement? Have I unwittingly closed or open certain doors of opportunity? or opportunism? Or is it just another name to be called?

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Category: law school


5 Responses

  1. PT-LawMom says:

    This is really fascinating info. It’s amazing what we can learn about ourselves and society by looking at our past and how things have evolved. That sounds silly, but I do forget sometimes — probably a common problem of my generation — that some of the fights we face have been dealt with before and examining the past can be a great reality check.

    Re: checking the box, I went to high school with some students from fairly well-off families. One of the girls had grandparents from Spain, but neither her parents nor she had even visited. She told us she had always considered herself white but decided to check “Hispanic” on her college application. She ended up with a full scholarship to an Ivy League school. That rubbed me the wrong way, but she didn’t see a problem with it.

    Have you read Ruben Navarette’s book, “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano?” In it, he discusses the pressure he felt to be a “model Chicano” as one of the few in his Harvard Law class. It’s a really interesting look at the struggle between how you view yourself and how others view you.

    In terms of closing doors now, “diversity” is the hot-button issue at law firms right now. GC’s are demanding diversity and many firms have employed Diversity Counsel to make sure it’s provided. See:

  2. lukegilman says:

    To borrow from economics, I think it’s good to distinguish whether we take a macro or micro approach to the issue.

    At the macro level I think the disparity is clear, law firms lag far behind in diversity and I don’t think there’s really any other way to explain it other than the lasting effects of our society’s history of racism. In that sense I think it’s great that clients are taking the diversity of the firms they employ seriously.

    On the micro/personal level, however, I’m just not interested in being a token minority. I’m proud of that part of my heritage but I don’t feel particularly oppressed and I’m perfectly happy to compete on my own merits. That of course, assumes that we’re in a meritocracy and that we’re given an opportunity to compete on our merits. To this point, I haven’t experienced anything that indicates otherwise, but I’m not so naive to believe that everyone is so fortunate. I may be a minority (debatable, I guess) but I don’t feel like one.

  3. Sean John says:

    The irony is that from my observations at least, race relations were far better in the enlisted ranks of the army where most people only had a high school education than what I’ve seen in groups of what are supposed to be some of the most educated members of our society.

    Obviously the Army wasn’t put here to solve the nation’s race problems, and I’m certainly not going to claim there are no racists in the army. They exist there too sometimes and come in all sorts of packages just like racists in any other subset of society.

    However, it seems that the military is perhaps the one “government program” that is actually pretty effective with solving this issue even if it is an unintended consequence.

    –We learned to forget about inconsequential surface qualities and take pride in being green instead.

  4. [...] Following my post Not So Long Ago, Race in Law School, I stumbled across the work of Richard Sander who ignited an intense debate in 2004 with A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools, 57 STAN. L. REV. 367 (2004) (.pdf). Sander, whose son is bi-racial and has spent the majority of his career working in the area of Fair Housing and public interest law, is an unlikely opponent to affirmative action in law school, but his conclusion is unambiguous. What I find and describe in this Article is a system of racial preferences that, in one realm after another, produces more harms than benefits for its putative beneficiaries …. Perhaps most remarkably, a strong case can be made that in the legal education system as a whole, racial preferences end up producing fewer black lawyers each year than would be produced by a race-blind system. Affirmative action as currently practiced by the nation’s law schools does not, therefore, pass even the easiest test one can set. In systemic, objective terms, it hurts the group it is most designed to help. [...]

  5. [...] My continued fascination with Justice Thomas is piqued all the more. See my previous posts Not So Long Ago… Race in Law School, Clarence Thomas – Enigma or Man?, and Inscrutable. [...]

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