"Just another little black boy from the South Side of Chicago": overcoming obstacles and breaking down barriers to improve diversity in the law professoriate.

AuthorGreen, Michael Z.
PositionThe More Things Change ... Exploring Solutions to Persisting Discrimination in Legal Academia


As I reflected on my personal experience to help address the persistence of discrimination in legal academia, 1 chose to focus on five areas of discussion for the open mic portion of the program held at the Association of American Law Schools Cross-Cutting Program, "The More Things Change ...: Exploring Solutions to Persistent Discrimination in Legal Academia," held on January 4, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (1) First, I decided to address my personal development as an only child and male in a family of mostly black women struggling through the socioeconomic challenges of being poor and black. To add to that predicament and the narrative discussing it, I lived and grew up in one of this country s most racially segregated cities in a community permeated with deadly criminal activities and hard core gangs. As an elementary school student, I lived on a block where people were stabbed, beaten, and killed. I saw people robbed and someone attempted to rob me at knifepoint in a violent confrontation. And those experiences still shape me today.

Second, I decided to reflect on how core parental dedication helped to make sure that despite those surroundings I would be given a foundation to recognize that I could succeed and transcend the demoralizing pitfalls being observed on a daily basis in my neighborhood. Third, I must highlight how a lack of resources to adequately guide choices limits the pipeline possibilities even for those few like me who have the abilities to go forward. This discussion involves a lack of knowledge and financial support to even consider an Ivy League education and its benefits despite having the academic qualifications as a National Merit Finalist in high school. (2) It also involves a discussion of being pushed to pursue a career in engineering when further reflection might have suggested development of other educational interests leading to a more traditional path in the law.

Fourth, I have to bring forward my experience in recovering from a somewhat ill-advised engineering educational focus by going to law school which culminates with me obtaining a position in the academy as a law professor despite not having Ivy League credentials. The most important part of this discussion must include the support and the validation I received in my quest to join the professoriate that I gained by becoming a Hastie Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School. (3) Finally, as an African American male who practiced employment discrimination taw, worked at large law firms, a boutique, and a union law firm, and who now teaches and writes about issues of race and workplace discrimination, I believe that my personal experience adds a unique perspective especially given the dearth of African American male law professors who teach and write in an area of law so important to African American males.

However, given the three minute timeframe during the actual presentation I only discussed the first two areas of focus: 1) the initial aspect of growing up in the Englewood neighborhood; and 2) how important parental involvement and activism was in pushing me forward despite the burdens of my surroundings. At the end of my presentation, I couched that discussion by asserting why I believed my story highlights how the lack of black male law professors who teach workplace law and discrimination supports the overall narrative of ongoing discrimination in the academy. The presentation and this Article reflect what it meant for me growing up under certain circumstances that presented barriers to becoming a law professor, and how that initial experience as shown by my personal narrative further indicates why discrimination in the academy continues.


Problems for black males in our society have reached a fever pitch. In 2012, a group of commentators reviewed circumstances reflected in Professor Michelle Alexander's 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (4) which documented how "nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison." (5) With this image of black males incarcerated at such disproportionate rates in our society, it is not surprising that almost any position in America presents limited options for black males. However, with the ascendancy to the position of President of the United States by a black male, Barack Obama, some have claimed that we have become a post-racial society where policy concerns about discrimination no longer matter as a result of our broad acceptance of racial differences. (6) Professor Michael Selmi explained this post-racial phenomenon as follows: "The election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States gave pause to all who study discrimination ... as a sign that discrimination had receded and was now only to be found among a few bad apples." (7) This view of a post-racial society arose even though more racial harassment incidents occurred as a result of his presidential election. (8) If you can accept the overwhelming data presented by Alexander, then you have to recognize that the typical path for a young black boy in our society is to go to jail rather than succeed in school, much less obtain a job as a law professor.

In the public debate on the implications from Alexander's book and what perils still await black males in our society, several commentators offered their opinions. (9) Two black male law professors weighed in on this matter as well. Paul Butler, a former prosecutor and law professor at George Washington University Law School, noted that unconscious application of race has led to having "one million black people in prison." (10) Butler also lamented that this issue of addressing the plight of black male incarceration rates in our society would not be remedied because racial preference plays more of a role with policy makers than their own self-interest in reducing crime." Shavar Jefferies, a law professor from Seton Hall, decried the fact that "black men find themselves disproportionately subject to criminal punishment" and our educational system subjects "[b]lack boys ... to disproportionate tracking to remedial classes or to special-education classification" and listed his concern that these issues still require "intentional ... engagement" to be overcome in our society. (12)

If you take the figures presented by Professor Alexander, the comments from Professor Butler and Professor Jefferies, and the narrative from my path to becoming a law professor, it is clear that young black males face tremendous obstacles preventing them from breaking into the law professor academy with any reasonable measures of success. In my situation, several factors converged to help me narrowly make it through the window into becoming a successful law professor. Those factors include a strong parental involvement with the determination to make sure that I would rise above the crime-infested environment in which I grew up. That strong parental support also demanded the development of strong educational support and mentoring to take a little black boy and help him believe that he could learn and develop rather than assuming he would be another statistic. And once that foundation was built, the next step was to provide sufficient counseling and financial support to help that little black boy continue to develop academically and make informed educational choices that would maximize his further development. With some of that counseling lacking, it became crucial for that little black boy, now a black man, to find special resources and a unique program, the Hastie Fellowship, to help cultivate those initial glimmers of educational development, and to finally pursue the path of becoming a law professor. Even now, with levels of success as a law professor, the real loss to all of us are the many other black males with similar backgrounds who do not have all the support systems that I had to make it through the pipeline to obtain success.

  1. Growing Up in the Hood of Englewood in Chicago

    This narrative starts with my initial upbringing. I was raised by a single mother with no siblings in a community on the south side of Chicago called Englewood. Englewood is a predominantly African American neighborhood (13) less than ten miles from downtown Chicago. (14) Although the city of Chicago is a global economic city offering many high-paid opportunities, the residents in Englewood live a starkly different reality. The Englewood neighborhood is largely characterized as one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas in Chicago (15) with high unemployment and low median income. (16) Englewood has such an infamous history that it ranks among Chicago's five most violent neighborhoods. (17) The community has received such notable descriptions as being called a part of CHI-RAQ, essentially a battle zone. (18) Certainly it is known for producing some high-profile residents as well, such as singer Jennifer Hudson (19) and basketball player Derrick Rose. (20)

    My key reflections from that time living in Englewood through my pre-teen years include at least two shootings of young black men who were killed on my block. I have an undying memory of being an eight-year-old seeing the older brother of an acquaintance, who lived on the next block over, attacking an elderly woman who lived on my block to get her purse, and the violent confrontation as she fought to keep hold of her purse as he threw her to the ground. I also remember being at a professional baseball game as an eleven-year-old and having a teenager approach me with a knife and try to take my money, in what resulted in a lesser but still violent encounter as well. Those memories and my neighborhood shape me as a black man in America.

  2. A Parent That Would Not Allow Me to Give in to the Streets and Insisted on Academic Performance

    My mother's involvement in building a good foundation started with her scraping up the funds to send me to a private school...

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