To honor excellence in editing, the law review staff at the University of Memphis School of Law constructed a trophy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Editing a law review involves hours of painstaking copyediting work and staff rarely get the appreciation they deserve for unpaid work arguing with law professors over whether a footnote properly calls for “See generally” or “See, e.g.”
Anyway… this is the trophy:
Do you know how hard you have to work to make comma placement racist? Well, not all that hard actually — there are studies showing that, when shown identical documents, attorneys are statistically more likely to identify typos in a draft if they believe the author is Black. And there’s important scholarship, primarily from Michigan State’s Justin Simard, on the impact of subtly erasing the institution of slavery in case citations — a project that resulted in Rule 10.7.1(d) requiring academic work citing such caselaw to include the parenthetical “(enslaved party).” Though maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves confronting unconscious racism in citations when courts still positively cite slavery caselaw to support their originalist legal theories .
So maybe we don’t need to add any more racism to the job.
The law review offices displayed the trophy for around 10 days before someone checked the calendar and realized it was 2023. Last week, the dean and the EIC of the law review issued apologies. From the EIC’s statement:
A few weeks ago, a small group of Law Review student leaders used random items that were found in the Law Review suite to construct a “trophy” to recognize Law Review staff for excellent Bluebook editing. Bluebook editing is a weekly responsibility for Law Review staff. The “trophy,” which was made up of a football and a wig of long dark hair and other items, resembled a face. We placed this “trophy” on a shelf where it was visible to anyone nearby.
Although no one involved recognized it at the time, the face resembled images of black face, which historically has been a horrible and humiliating means of degrading African Americans. No one involved intended to make an item that resembled an image with such terrible racial connotations; however, Law Review’s leadership should have immediately recognized what the “trophy” resembled and how it harmed members of the Memphis legal community who viewed it.
So they say it was accidental. I don’t know where the line is between “we constructed a face on a football and didn’t realize using a brown base opened up the possibility that it could be construed as a caricature of African-Americans” and “the Amos & Andy award for excellence goes to…” but this is a lot closer to the latter. The lips take up half the face! Look, wide open eyes and the big lips on their own might be passable, but in conjunction this forms a template for minstrelsy.
From the Daily Memphian coverage:
Kourtney Thomas, a member of the Black Law Student Association, finds it hard to believe that someone could have made the image and not recognized it as blackface and belittling.
“I don’t know how all those coincidences could have happened,” he said.
Honestly, as bad as it is that it happened, it’s way worse that it went unchecked for 10 days. Multiple people had an opportunity to think “hm, this seems bad” for a week and a half and just… didn’t.
Because, to bring it all back to the very function of a law review, the point of journal work is to leverage the collective judgment of multiple editors combing over a piece to make sure there aren’t any mistakes.
And a whole lot of people seem to have laid eyes on this thing and never flagged it.
U of M law school rattled by student-made blackface caricature [Daily Memphian]
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.