Let’s Unpack This

Georgetown Law Just Might Have a Racism Problem

A fired professor’s words belie the truth of her anti-Black academic bias

Photo: Georgetown University/Getty Images

When I consider the level of commitment it took for me to enroll and graduate from law school, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story’s words still ring true: “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by a lavish homage.” I became intimate with Justice Story’s words as law school became the single most important thing in my life, allowing little room for anything else romantically, socially, or financially until I graduated.

For three years, on most days, I’d wake up early and head to campus with my roommate between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. to attack a never-ending to-do list. I’d attend two to four, sometimes five classes, and after a brief break for lunch, the rest of the evening was dedicated to giving my mistress what she wanted: solo studying, study groups, case readings, assignments, and preparation for the off-chance the professor would pepper me with questions for the entirety of a class the next morning.

When I chose North Carolina Central University’s Law School (NCCU Law) in Durham, North Carolina, two factors made it the obvious pick: cost of attendance and the fact it’s an HBCU. The first one has obvious benefits, but the second one was equally important. Prior to enrolling at NCCU Law, I’d spent my entire life surrounded by White students and instructed by White teachers.

My elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate years saw less than 10 Black instructors. At NCCU Law, most of my professors, classmates, study groups, and peers were Black. Of all the things to be concerned about regarding my law school experience, being the only or one of a few Black faces and constantly facing attitudes about how I earned my spot at school was one I wanted to do without.

The foundation of my law school experience was built on three pillars: studying, memorizing, and asking my professors for help. I leaned on the third pillar the most because studying and memorizing was pointless if my professors didn’t confirm that I fully understood what was being taught.

Professors weren’t just people trained to help us learn and interpret the law, either. Students who spent more time fostering relationships with their professors fared better, with standout resume-builders like law review, competitive internships, as well as opportunities to make extra money and get free legal help to fight traffic tickets.

Their vested interest in my success ensured my, well, success. It’s in that context I think about what happened at Georgetown University and their recent firing of an adjunct professor for making racist statements about Black students at the university.

In March of this year, Sandra Sellers, a former adjunct professor at Georgetown, discussed Black student performance with another professor, saying: “I hate to say this… a lot of my lower ones are Blacks… there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

Depending on who you are, the expectation for Black people to fail at institutions of higher learning is either a shocking revelation or particularly on the nose for an elite school located in an elite area that doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to Black people. That said, the historical context of Georgetown, both the area and the school, is relevant when considering the former professor’s comments.

Less than 70 years ago, Sen. John F. Kennedy bought a house in a Georgetown neighborhood. One of the conditions to owning that house was to make sure a Black person never lived there. Kennedy wasn’t the only person who received that memo. At the time he bought the house, D.C. was 54% Black, but Georgetown’s Black population was only 9%.

Georgetown University made headlines in 2016 after it discovered the school sold 272 slaves in 1838 to save the “struggling college.” Inspired by those events, the school created a group to make penance for the wrongdoing, held a ceremony to deliver an official apology, and began giving descendants of the 272 enslaved people a bump in admissions. The recent revelation caused students in 2016 to vote to tax themselves in order to create a fund supporting descendants of enslaved people from whom the university profited.

Add to this some context about the elite group of students who attend the university.

In 2020, Georgetown Law school accepted just over 21% of students who applied versus 28% in 2017. The median LSAT score is 167 on a scale ranging from 120–180, and the median GPA is 3.8. White students make up 49% of the student body, while Black students, the next highest demographic on the list, make up just over 9%.

If Georgetown students are the best of the best and the elite of the elite, how does the university manage to employ a professor who believes these same Black students—who had to be in the top percentage for grades and LSAT scores—are, as the professor said, “just plain at the bottom?” One answer is this: racial bias.

Studies show that teachers with low expectations of Black students can negatively affect a student’s educational pursuits. Education Next wrote that, although there isn’t direct causation between teachers’ expectations and Black student success, “the nature of White teachers’ expectations places Black students at a disadvantage.” A John Hopkins study found White teachers “expect significantly less academic success than Black teachers… this is especially true for Black boys.” The study also mentions those low expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and “could affect the performance of students.”

It has been several years, and I still believe leaning on my professors for help was an integral part of how I survived law school. Whatever lecture I had follow-up questions for, exam questions I missed, or just all-around guidance I needed to navigate law school, there was no shortage of professors who were willing to step in and aid me on my journey to graduation and gainful employment.

It’s simply unconscionable for a professor teaching at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country to look at a group of Black students and fail to pay them their proper respect. Unconscionable and, sadly, par for the course.

Read more from Garfield Hylton.

Award-winning TV news journalist. Freelance writer. Mad question asker.

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