Beaujolais v. Beer: Denver Faculty Respond to “Double Consciousness”

I asked my colleagues to review my most recent post, discussing the concept of double consciousness and adjusting to law school, and not surprisingly, they had some insightful responses that they graciously allowed me to reproduce here.

Prof. Tom Romero

Following are comments from faculty member Tom Romero. He discusses a type of double consciousness in a very different social context—and the seemingly “erratic” or difficult-to-characterize behavior that stems from it—and then relates this to his own experience as a law student. Tom ultimately advocates that we as law faculty become more conscious or the role of race in legal education and the profession—a sentiment I could not agree with more.

Thank you for sharing. Dubois’ poignant prediction about the psychological and emotional challenge (some might say violence) of navigating the color line has been the repeated and multi-varied experience of people of color in the United States. The Mexican poet and philosopher, Octavio Paz, writing over half a century ago, assessed the “peculiar” Pachuco culture (think Zoot Suits) that arose among Chicano youth in the 1940s. In his essay, Paz highlighted the “hybridity” in which Mexicans as Americans operated. The Chicano Pachuco was seen as neither Indigenous Mexican, nor was he White American. Rather, according the Paz, “the pachuco [could be understood] as mythological figure and therefore, in effect, a danger. His dangerousness lies in his singularity. Everyone agrees in finding something hybrid about him, something disturbing and fascinating.” This in turn, argued Paz, created a problematic conundrum for Pachucos who carried with them a distorted system of values: “When you talk with them, you observe that their sensibilities are like a pendulum.” The Pachuco cannot express himself in his native language or traditions, and neither is he able to adapt to the White civilization that rejects and fears him. He is subject to perceived sense of “violent” and “erratic” behavior.

Your post not only reminded by about Paz, but about my own experience as a law student. I remember one distinct day during my first year in my torts class, the Professor invited the class to his house for an evening of Beaujolais and Brie. One of my good friends, a second generation Chicano who was raised in a small Indiana town of 900 people, turned to me and said, “What the hell is Beaujolais??? What is bree??” I shrugged my shoulders and whispered, “I don’t even know what language he was talking in. Was it English? French? It certainly wasn’t Spanish!” There was also another moment in the law library when one of my White section mates came up to me and a Puerto Riqueno from Chicago. In the White student’s hand he held the Martindale-Hubble Law Directory. He sat down next to us, opened up the book, and immediately started listing family members from many of our section mates. “There is so-and-so’s father, he is a judge. Or there is so-and-so’s mother, a partner at this law firm.” This student, after naming several names, finally turned to one of us and said, “Do you have any family members in here?” My friend replied, “my mom’s a school teacher and my dad’s a police officer. Sorry.” I looked at him and said, “I’m the first one to graduate from college. No silver spoon in my family.”

For context, it might be helpful to know that Barbara Grutter wanted to be part of my law school class. She did not get in, thus setting in motion the whole chain of events culminating in the United States Supreme Court’s Grutter and Gratz decisions. Grutter was clearly a test plaintiff and the saber rattling that arose during my first year of law school empowered many of those of privilege to voice what I know many of them had silently felt about people of color like myself, like my friends from Indiana and Chicago. During my first year in law school, White students were openly questioning whether any of us students of color belonged at an “elite” law school. Many of us where shunned from study groups because White students didn’t want us to jeopardize their grades. When “race” questions arose during class, we were the one’s called upon. The only Black faculty member (and my law school was not very racially progressive when it came to faculty positions) had racial epithets scrawled on his door. One day I was walking with a group of Latinos into the law quad and someone yelled, “Go back to the bean fields, where you belong!” Our classmates, like the one in the library and even our faculty, felt no compunction about pointing out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways why we did not belong to this world of law, of elitism, of Whiteness. At the time, many of us coped by becoming active and even militant in proclaiming our otherness. We were the founding and early editors of the highly read Michigan Journal of Race and Law. We were intervenors–as Law Student of Color groups and as individual volunteers–in both the Gratz and Grutter litigation. Others attempted to blend in and claim Whiteness or color-blindness. Though almost of us were successful both then (out of all of the first year classes, students of color received 7 of the 9 highest grades, the first Latin@ was selected as Editor-in-Chief of the law review) and now (federal clerkships, partnerships in some of the most prestigious law firms, tenured law faculty members), it came at a great price. The Grutter and Gratz decisions made us in some very important sense, “illegal”–a common trope that us Latinos know well. Richard Sanders still continues to tell students of color that they don’t belong at elite law schools. Many in the legal community run from the word race and instead embrace some distilled down notion of “multiculturalism” or “diversity.” Many of my most militant law school classmates have “assimilated” into a legal mainstream while others were the first one’s fired during the great law firm downsizing of the last five years. I write about some of this in my article, La Raza Latina? Multicultural Ambivalence, Color Denial, and the Emergence of a Tri-Ethnic Jurisprudence at the End of the Twentieth Centuy,” 37 N.M.L.Rev. 245 (2007).

All of this is to say that we as a legal educators need to be much more explicit about shattering the color (and other) lines in the process of professionalization. The burden has fallen and continues to fall on students of color to know how to do this without confronting the thousands of ways that we are othered, alienated, and mythologlized. We swing, in the words of Paz, as a penudulum–expected to find an equilibrium in the legal community that just does not exist.

Prof. Nancy Ehrenreich

My colleague Nancy Ehrenreich also shared her thoughts, relating the concept of Double Consciousness to on-campus recruiting and assimilation into law firm culture.

“[The post] reminded me of a story I tell in Jurisprudence to help my students understand Foucault’s notion of the individual as a “vehicle of power.” The story’s about my friend Gary, who grew up on the streets of Atlanta and then attended Harvard Law School. In those days, firms doing [On Campus Interviews] would hold cocktail parties for prospective summer hires. At one (or perhaps many) such events, Gary felt completely out of place. This was supposed to be a social gathering, but where were the chips? And the beer? And why was there no music? I get my students to imagine how anybody like Gary who actually did manage to land a job in a fancy firm would probably eventually become very habituated to drinking wine instead of beer and eating cheese instead of chips. Eventually, that same person might attend a cocktail party for the firm and, just like the folks Gary encountered, expect the students to be totally comfortable, to know which type of wine (or cheese) was which, etc. Just like those who hosted Gary and his fellow law review members, this individual might help to perpetuate class hierarchy and forced assimilation to a particular economically based style of interpersonal interaction, while not intending to, or even being conscious of, doing it.

So I love how you tie double consciousness into this sort of dynamic. Because it would be (in my opinion) totally wrong to merely tell the students they need to learn to use the “right” fork (as, I’m afraid, some career services centers often do – with their advice to women to wear skirts, or to men to cut their hair, or to people of color to omit their BALSA or NALSA activities from their resume, etc.). What you suggest instead is the importance of “knowing the enemy,” if you willl. The idea of developing a double consciousness as protection. And you leave it up to the student to decide which battle(s) to actually fight – the fork battle, the cheese battle, the skirt battle, the “talking white” battle, etc., etc. As you show, what’s really unfair is if you lose a battle you didn’t even know you were fighting.

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One response to “Beaujolais v. Beer: Denver Faculty Respond to “Double Consciousness”

  1. Pingback: Beaujolais v. Beer: Denver Faculty Respond to “Double … | Free Legal News

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