I started law school in September 2017. Although there was a handful of other Black female students following different class schedules, I was the only one in my section of about 60 students. That year, there were no Black males.
In class, my emotions often swung back and forth between feelings of alienation and responsibility. Discussions in Criminal Law were very alienating because my colleagues' privileged perspectives did not acknowledge the nuances of the Black experience. In my other classes, I felt the burden of responsibility through the unspoken expectation of my instructors and peers to contribute to topics like slavery or racial profiling. If I remained silent, often I was confronted by awkward stares. I was not always sure which situation was worse.
Access to Justice, a mandatory class for all first-year students at my law school, eluded a rich and robust learning experience because of the lack of diversity in my classroom. In particular, the lived experiences and diverse stories of Black male students could have shaped class discussions on the overrepresentation of Black men in the Canadian criminal justice system. But their voices were missing.
A community historically denied access
There were almost 1.2 million Black people living in Canada in 2016, representing 3.5 per cent of the total Canadian population. With 20 law schools in Canada, why is it that in 2019 we can still have an entire class with no Black students? At law schools that are fortunate enough to attract a handful of Black students, why are there no Black males?
When Black students raise this issue with their admissions committees, we are often told that there are not enough Black applicants, or that offers were made to Black applicants, but those students chose to accept offers from other law schools. Another common reason offered for the lack of representation is that many visible minority students do not self-identify their race and/or ethnicity in their applications.
These answers are unacceptable. Simplistic reasons such as these raise systemic concerns about access to legal education for Black people in Canada — a community that has been historically denied such access and is currently underrepresented in the legal profession.
Legal system should reflect Canada
The impact and consequences of the history of colonization and slavery in Canada have created systemic barriers that prevent Black people from fully participating in all parts of society. Blacks in Canada — whether immigrants, refugees or descendants of people who were enslaved — share a daily lived experience of anti-Black racism. Our courts have recognized the existence of anti-black racism in Canada, and its influence continues to express itself throughout Canadian institutions:
"Racism, and in particular anti-Black racism, is a part of our community's psyche. A significant segment of our community holds overtly racist views. A much larger segment subconsciously operates on the basis of negative racial stereotypes." — Justice Doherty, R. v. Parks,1993 CanLII 3383 (ON CA)
Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism and celebrating people's differences. Yet, while the Canadian society continues to evolve with a noticeable shift in Canada's demographic, executive positions in law firms and Canadian courts remain overwhelmingly middle-class, white and male.
The diversity among Canada's legal profession however should reflect the diversity among Canadian families. It is in the public interest that the legal profession mirrors the ethnocultural and social diversity of the populations it serves. In effect, greater diversity in the legal profession will increase cultural competency, sensitivity, and awareness to people and their legal issues. This promotes public confidence and legitimacy in the legal system.
Reform school admission policy
Law schools are the gatekeepers of the legal profession. How can we even begin to address the issue of the underrepresentation of racialized licensees amongst lawyers if we do not first address the admission of Black students into law school? Passive efforts in recruitment and admissions will not resolve these problems.
This is why Black law students across the country are petitioning their law schools to re-evaluate their "holistic admissions" policy statements. There is a need to go beyond boastful statements on their websites about diversity and inclusion, and take real action to combat tokenism through recruitment and admission policy reform.
- Law schools should seek candidates who are traditionally underrepresented in the legal profession, because these individuals bring valuable backgrounds, perspectives and thought that will diversify and strengthen learning for all students and the legal industry.
- Faculty and law-school administrators should conduct focus groups and surveys with their current Black students to assess their law-school experiences and determine ways to enhance the unique needs of future Black students.
- Recruiters and admission file readers should undergo diversity and bias training, and should also have diverse representation on their respective committees to increase sensitivity to the lived experiences of prospective applicants.
- Admission committees should review their application questions to ensure they invite students to self-report their ethnic/racial identities and describe any barriers they have had to overcome. It should be made clear in the application that this information will not be used against students, but rather, in their favour for equitable consideration.
- When relying on grade point averages and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), recruiters and admission file readers should consider the racial biases of these instruments while reconsidering their predictive quality of success in law school and lawyering.
- Law schools should gather diversity enrolment data and produce reports to measure and analyze the results of their reform efforts in recruitment and admission.
Yes, as a nation, we have made much progress in advancing equality and human rights for Blacks. But we still have a long way to go to eradicate institutional practices that reinforce beliefs, attitudes, prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination toward Black people in Canada.It is this systemic racism that often manifests in the unconscious biases of recruiters, admission officers, interviewers, and other individuals responsible for selection and hiring.
It cannot be an acceptable norm that when I graduate in 2020, there will be no Black men walking across the stage at convocation. The profession needs lawyers who look like their clients.
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Substantial internal reform at the recruitment and admission level is necessary if we want to see changes in diverse representation in the legal profession. Diversity and inclusion are important pieces of the "access-to-justice" puzzle in a democratic society. We need to increase access to all parts of Canadian society, including the legal profession, particularly for those who were previously excluded and underrepresented. This begins with increasing access to law school.
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