With the classroom in the University of Oregon’s Knight Law Center filled to capacity, and an overflow room set up to live stream the lecture, Yvette Alex-Assensoh, the vice president for equity and inclusion, told the audience to “put their seatbelts on and strap in.” Students and community members filled every seat and lined the back walls, all ready to listen and learn from Cheryl Harris, this year’s Derrick Bell lecturer for the UO School of Law. Her lecture is also included as part of the 2018-2019 African-American Workshop and Lecture Series, which connects students with national experts in areas associated with politics and equality.Harris is an internationally recognized expert on civil rights education and critical race theory and is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also serves as the faculty director for the Critical Race Studies Program. Beginning her lecture to the sound of echoing applause, she proceeded to dive into the complicated history of race policy in the United States. With a spotlight on court cases challenging affirmative action, she chronicled how the law has been used to maintain racial hierarchies.
“Affirmative action should be center stage because it is the framework for race and racism,” she stated. “Race makes law and law makes race.”
In institutions of higher education, affirmative action, which stems from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, refers to policies that provide equal access to education for groups that have been historically excluded and discriminated against.Harris highlighted three stages of her racial theory: colorblindness, post-racialism and white nationalism, each of which she argued played an active role in the threat to affirmative action. She particularly stressed Barack Obama’s election as president as an important historical moment that shifted colorblindness from something that “should” be practiced to something that is. This shift led directly to the post-racialist stage, where race became irrelevant, and paved the way for the current stage of white nationalism.
Tianna Bruno, a graduate student in geography and a huge fan of Harris, said Harris’ contribution to the field of policies regarding racial theory heavily influenced her work and helped her understand how policy shapes the discourse on race.
“Her work helped me realize that [racial] policy is not inherently progressive,” she said. “It connected with my work on spatial relationships of racism and the disproportionate distribution of environmental justice.” In other words, the unequal distribution of land and where disenfranchised communities live is heavily influenced by racial policy.Throughout her lecture, Harris used several court cases from the past few decades to illustrate that challenges to affirmative action by people who want to uphold and maintain their positions of power and privilege are not new. However, instead of accepting these challenges, Harris encouraged the audience to push back against these threats to racial equality and confront the existing racial regime that upholds black racial inferiority.
“We should reject the ending of this story and instead we should craft an ending of our own,” she said.
According to Harris, simply attending and listening to her lecture is a step in the right direction because “teaching law might be the best way to change the law.”