September 26, 2016 | By Alexa Brown —Tanya Cooper, law professor and Director of the Restoration and Justice Clinic at Pepperdine Law, recently received an invitation to attend The Atlantic Summit on Race and Justice in Downtown Los Angeles on September 15th. She jumped at the opportunity to represent Pepperdine in this national-level forum. She was joined by her colleague Dr. Roslyn Satchel — a professor at Pepperdine’s Seaver College — and nearly twenty law and undergrad students, making for an impressive Pepperdine delegation at the conference.
The Surf Report sat down with Cooper and Satchel to talk about their experiences at Pepperdine leading up to the Summit:
Professor Tanya Cooper: When Atlantic Live invited me to this event, I immediately thought,”Yes, this is right up my alley,” because I love to talk about race and justice in the law.
I thought of Roslyn as well, who just finished her book What Movies Teach About Race: Exceptionalism, Erasure and Entitlement (November 2016 release).
Cooper: We saw this summit as a huge opportunity: some of these speakers are activists from entertainment, from communications, from the social justice and non-profit world. We’re very interested in issues of racial disparities and disproportions, which essentially means when one racial group is under- or over- represented in an institution and treated differently, for example, mass incarceration of African Americans. Last year, I taught a Lawyering Process class right after the Napa wine train incident where a few African-American women were kicked off of the train for essentially being too loud, and the hashtag associated was #laughingwhileblack. It was a brilliant time to be teaching Lawyering Process and practicing civil procedure because the fictitious case that students litigated all semester was on consumer racism, and Roslyn was the plaintiff in this fictitious case (she was also involved in the events that unfolded last year surrounding [social media outlet] YikYak on the Seaver campus, which I’ll let her say more about). We had great discussions all semester about race, justice, questioning whether post-racial America exists or not, and all of the examples why not.
My background is also in family law and domestic violence, where I also see a ton of disparities. It’s routinely the African-Americans who are overrepresented in almost every legal system, historically and today, and who are oppressed by those systems in criminal justice, child welfare, domestic violence, immigration, housing, you name it. I’ve written about these racial disparities specifically in the foster care system, so that’s a big reason why I am interested in what this conference has to offer. One of the sponsors is The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and they do a lot of work within the foster care system. I think this is a good opportunity for Pepperdine because some may not consider our school as being very diverse or inclusive. This is not unlike what’s happening at every campus across the country, but I think it’s important for us to recognize it and talk about it, and keep talking about race and justice issues in the spheres we live in. For me, that’s law and academia. The School of Law itself is increasingly diverse, and our recent incoming classes reflect that richness. Students are really interested in talking about diversity and justice issues, which is another reason why we are so interested in bringing them along to this summit. We’d like to see how we can participate and engage in the conversation there and focus on how we can then continue it here. In a nutshell, that’s why I am interested in attending and representing Pepperdine at this event.
Satchel: Already we have ten students from the undergrad campus planning to attend the event. Like Tanya mentioned, racial events at Seaver last year involving the social platform YikYak were precipitated by a series of microaggressions on campus. The YikYak comments came in on the tail end of what had already been a very racially charged climate. There had been situations where students were making racist comments in classrooms and professors were not necessarily sure how to handle it; students of color were feeling quite compromised and feeling as though they weren’t being heard were they to go to the chair of the division or even the deans office. They simply felt like no one was listening. When the YikYak comments came around, it was bringing that bubble to a head. I will never forget, we were in class — I teach an Intercultural Media Literacy class — and after a break students came back into class in tears and angry about the comments they had just read on YikYak. They were really looking for a way to respond in a proactive way. They wanted very much to address these issues of structural and institutional racism that we had been discussing in class as they were manifesting on Pepperdine’s Seaver campus. The Seaver students were inspired by what [Pepperdine Law’s Black Law Students Association] did in conjunction with Black Lives Matter and wanted to conduct a demonstration of their own that would be similar to what was being done at Mizzou at the time. The students at Seaver took over the cafeteria and had a peaceful demonstration. Later, they took to the administration building and sat down, and what was really interesting is that the President [Andrew K. Benton] came out and sat with them, and had a conversation about their concerns. What the students called for included several demands, but what it basically all came down to was: practice what you preach; if you are serious about the Christian mission, then you must be serious about racial justice, gender justice, and justice for LGBTQ students. They called for equity in terms of decision-making, a chief diversity officer at the University, and so forth. As a result of that, the Dean’s Office and others selected me, based on my background in cultural competency, to work with faculty and students on multiple occasions around how we can develop a culturally competent climate at Seaver. That included a series of meetings and negotiations with the students to see which demands the administration was willing to respond to and act upon. Now, I am also doing a similar consultation with the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, which includes training student cohorts on what it means to operate with cultural competence in the academic environment.
This Race and Justice Summit ties in very well to the work we’ve been doing here at Pepperdine. Like Tanya, I come from a racial justice background, especially in relationship to human rights. I worked the juvenile court systems in Fulton County, Georgia, during and after law school. I was involved in studying what was happening in foster care with children of African descent, in interracial adoptions, and the “conditions of confinement” for African-American juveniles being detained in so-called homeless shelters while their white counterparts were going to rehabilitative programs. Often times these children were further harmed at their institutional placements, which were incarceration settings for minor offenses, particularly when it came to African-American children and girls, and especially African-American girls. They weren’t being placed in rehabilitative centers, they were being locked up. Calling attention to racial disparities there led to system-wide improvements. The bottom line is, I’ve had about 16 years of experience studying these race and justice issues and how they manifest in different institutional settings. I think it is imperative for conversations, like this Race and Justice Summit, to provide a more holistic engagement with the variety of ways racism manifests itself. Some of the panelists are from the Black Lives Matter Movement, and as they say, it is important to recognize that state-sanctioned violence is far more than just police violence, it is a larger institutional and structural framework of racism that we have to notice and address among multiple interconnected elements. If we have kids who are coming into the foster care system, who are being channeled into the juvenile justice system, and who are then going into adult prisons instead of colleges like [Pepperdine], then, unless we challenge the system that allows that to happen, we are a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. I’m hoping the Race and Justice Summit helps bring us all closer to being part of the solution.
Cooper: What Roslyn said about cultural competence resonates so strongly, because I strongly believe and tell my students in each of my classes that you cannot be a good lawyer unless you are a culturally competent one. You need to understand who your clients are and where they are coming from in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, language, etc, and that in turn helps us understand why they act in the manner they do, and it helps us to better represent them. Furthermore, it helps us understand the actions of other legal actors, like judges and other lawyers. It matters at every level of what we do. I think it’s also important for us to attend as faculty members and women of color and to represent Pepperdine, and show that this is Pepperdine; these are the issues that we care about and they happen here just as they happen everywhere else. We are moving to address them and talk constructively about them.
Satchel: And to take leadership. If Pepperdine is to be the leader among institutions as we all aspire for it to be, then we must be on the cutting edge in response to these issues of racial and cultural injustice, and even unintentional bias. That is a very key part of how best we can employ our Christian university brand in the interest of justice. And we are willing to take these hard stances. The President [of Pepperdine University’s] … leadership in saying, “we don’t need [Title IX] exemption because we are doing well to create a climate here where Title IX claims will rarely occur,” we can do that in regard to issues of race as well. I believe that the leadership of our University wants to do that and are looking for ways to actively do so. We are helping them as faculty members: we want to be a part of the solution and not the problem. We are taking this step [of attending the summit] to be a part of the national conversation on race and justice and to represent our institution in doing so.
All opinions expressed are the speaker’s own.
From The Atlantic:
The Atlantic will be in Los Angeles to explore the changing narrative of race and identity in this country. In our second annual Race + Justice summit we will convene civic leaders, activists, artists, policymakers and storymakers for a day of unflinching conversation. The summit will unfold in multiple chapters, as we try to answer the questions: Who is California? Where is Home? What is Justice? and Whose Story Gets Told? Within that framework we will tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time, from immigration and housing, to policing and the role that Hollywood plays in shaping the story of race in America.
By Alexa Brown | Pepperdine Law