It’s been a long time since I carefully counted the speakers and panelists at academic conferences on civil rights to determine how many scholars of color were included, but I’ll admit that when I looked at the lineup for SCOTUSblog’s month-long “Race and the Supreme Court” series in commemoration of Black History Month, the lack of diversity was surprising. Of the 16 scholars and litigators currently scheduled to comment on the “lasting role the Supreme Court has had on race,” three are African-American men. None are Latino or Asian-American. None are women of color.
To be fair, it’s an impressive lineup. Several of the scholars are among the most esteemed civil rights lawyers and scholars in our country. Jack Greenberg is former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. and a member of the team that litigated and won some of the most important civil rights cases of the 20th century. Pamela Karlan is among the most fearless and skilled civil rights litigators and scholars.
Does it matter, should it matter, that so few of the scholars chosen by SCOTUSblog are African American and that none are women of color? After all, publications like The Root give voice to ideas, scholars and public intellectuals who might not be featured as online commentators on publications like SCOTUSblog. I write regularly about the Supreme Court and its treatment of civil rights cases. Blogs like Dissenting Justice and Colored Demos were created by scholars of color who regularly write about the Supreme Court.
But SCOTUSblog is widely regarded as the definitive blog of Supreme Court litigation and practice. The mere fact of being selected by SCOTUSblog to comment on the Supreme Court’s race jurisprudence will help cement a scholar’s credentials as a respected Supreme Court commentator and expert among mainstream media outlets and Supreme Court watchers. Moreover, the decision to publish a nearly all-white lineup of scholars for its Black History Month program seems careless—or arrogant. There are plenty of top-quality scholars and litigators of color who have important and compelling points to make about the role of the Supreme Court on race issues. Scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw at UCLA, Gabriel “Jack” Chin at University of Arizona, Kim Forde-Mazrui at University of Virginia , Darren Hutchinson at American Law School, Angela Onwuachi-Willig at the University of Iowa , Mari J. Matsuda and Charles Lawrence III at Georgetown Law are well-known to anyone paying attention to serious, cutting-edge civil rights scholarship. Likewise, litigators like Debo Adegbile, who successfully argued the North Austin Municipal Utility District voting rights case before the Supreme Court last term (in which the Supreme Court upheld the reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act), and Bryan Stevenson, the fearless anti-death penalty advocate, who just two months ago argued the Sullivan v. Florida case challenging the constitutionality of sentencing teenagers convicted of non-homicide crimes to life in prison without parole, are among the most well-respected and influential civil rights litigators in the country. Given the depth of their work and engagement of these scholars and litigators with the Court’s race jurisprudence, their inclusion among SCOTUSblog’s Black History Month contributors, would have enhanced the quality and breadth of the February discussion on the blog.
I’m not accusing SCOTUSblog editors of deliberately selecting a nearly all-white lineup of scholars for its Black History Month series. Instead, SCOTUSblog may have fallen victim to the syndrome that those of us in academia too often see—the proclivity of a small cadre of well-known scholars and lawyers to stick within their own tightly knit and accepted circle of colleagues for “expertise.” It’s particularly disappointing when not even the commemoration of Black History Month suggests a need to reach beyond the “usual suspects.” Perhaps the SCOTUSblog editors sought deliberately to advance a kind of “post-black” celebration of Black History Month by refusing to be attentive to racial diversity among the contributing scholars. But it seems schizophrenic to advance a “post-black” lineup of contributors in an issue devoted to celebrating Black History Month.
To be fair, the SCOTUSblog has indicated that its list of contributors is “subject to change.” Perhaps the diversity of the list will grow as the month progresses. And in any case, it’s gratifying to see SCOTUSblog’s commitment to focusing the attention of the many Supreme Court litigators and scholars who faithfully follow its blog, on the Supreme Court’s ongoing role in shaping the experience of race in American law and society.
Here is a list of a few more civil rights scholars that should have made the lineup:
Kevin Johnson, University of California, Davis
Sylvia Lazos-Vargas, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Law School
Cheryl Harris, UCLA
Ian Haney Lopez, University of California, Berkeley
Charles J. Ogletree, Harvard
Katheryn Russell-Brown, University of Florida
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.