I live in Lonoke, a small town outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. My parents, both in their seventies, were born and raised in Arkansas between 1930 and 1950. This was a period when many African Americans feared to vote and would never have considered running for political office. (1) A poll tax receipt, found as our family prepared to celebrate my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, reminded me of efforts to keep African Americans from voting during my parents' lifetime. (2) My father often recalls how one of his uncles insisted upon voting in the rural Arkansas town they lived in even though the white officials had a special box for the black votes. Who knows what happened to the votes that went into that box? I sat in the living room of my parents' home in Lonoke on November 4, 2008, waiting like the rest of the country for the election results. I had declined election party invitations so that I could be home to wait and watch with my parents, who had truly come a long way. My parents were extremely proud of Mr. Obama's accomplishment. My daughter called from college shortly after the television networks announced Mr. Obama's victory. My father enthusiastically told her that now she could someday be President.
Voters in Lonoke, a red city, in a red county, in a red state, voted overwhelmingly for Senator John McCain, as did most other Arkansas voters. (3) Yet my mother fearlessly and proudly sported her collection of Obama victory buttons around town. I engaged in a similar practice, wearing one of my Obama t-shirts to the fitness center each time I went to work out. The shirts, bearing images of President Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. complete with sayings like "keep the dream alive" or "it is not about me, it is about you," drew lots of stares and a few positive comments. This is how I have experienced Mr. Obama's election personally as an African American woman living in Arkansas, a southern red state.
I have thought about what the election of the first African American president means to me personally. I have also thought about what it means as a historical event that has changed the country in many ways and perhaps has marked the beginning of changes in the way African Americans are viewed in this country. I had not thought much about what it means to the future of the legal academy until ! was invited to participate in the Fifth Annual Fred Gray, Sr. Civil Rights Symposium to discuss the impact President Obama will have on the academy.
In search of inspiration for a presentation at the symposium and for this essay, I did a Lexis search of the words "President Obama." I discovered that there have already been numerous articles written mentioning Mr. Obama. (4) Mr. Obama's presidency has provided and will provide fertile ground for scholarship in various areas of the law. In addition to the political arena, President Obama will draw attention to various legal issues simply because he is an African American man occupying the most powerful office in the world. (5)
For example, attention was drawn to the issue of racial profiling as a consequence of the arrest of an African American man, a friend of President Obama, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A white police officer arrested Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, a professor at Harvard University and a renowned scholar, just outside his own home. (6) A reporter questioned President Obama about this incident at a news conference. (7) His response to the question led to additional news coverage. This incident culminated with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Professor Gates, and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department sharing beers and conversation at the White House. Regardless of who was right or wrong in this incident, the country began to talk about racial profiling, an issue that frequently confronts people of color. (8) This incident is sure to be the subject of continued discussion and analysis by legal scholars. It may even cause scholars to revisit the United States Supreme Court's decision in Whren v. United States. (9) In Whren, the Court upheld a pretextual traffic stop, refusing to consider the officer's subjective motives for the stop. As a consequence of the holding in Whren officers may use minor traffic offenses as a basis to stop motorists in order to investigate crimes other than the traffic offense. They may make such traffic stops even though a reasonable officer would not have done so and even though the officer's actual motive for the stop is to investigate other offenses. Unfortunately, the discretion allowed to law enforcement officers may be inappropriately used to target African American motorists. (10)
President Obama's appointment of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice to sit on the United States Supreme Court, will lead scholars to analyze aspects of the cases she decided during her 17 years as a judge in search of evidence to predict what type of justice she will be. For instance, the recent decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, (11) involving Connecticut firefighters who alleged that New Haven Connecticut violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it failed to promote them, will receive even more attention by scholars in part due to Justice Sotomayor's role in the case as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. (12) Eventually, scholars will analyze her decision-making while on the Supreme Court to determine what type of justice she has become. (13) Critical race scholars will have opportunities to consider the tension that becomes obvious when a country, accustomed to looking at what is "normal" through the lens of the predominate culture, is challenged to look at things through a different lens. (14) Law professors have an obligation to engage in scholarship by researching and writing about legal issues. Mr. Obama's presidency will provide those of us in the academy with many issues and ideas to discuss and analyze.
It is much too early to tell how President Obama's presence in the White House will affect the number of people of color serving at all levels in the academy. Most law schools look for scholars with similar characteristics when they search for new faculty. Important characteristics include: the law school attended, class rank, law review participation, judicial clerkships, articles published, research agenda, practice experience, and teaching experience. Although the relative importance of each characteristic differs from school to school, the basic considerations are the same. For the first time, I have the opportunity to serve on my law school's Faculty Appointments Committee and to see--up close and personal--how this process works. First, the committee set basic parameters for our search. This year we needed someone to teach in our first year legal writing program. Our parameters included those with experience teaching legal writing or a desire to teach this subject. Next, we combed the Association of American Law Schools' (AALS) Faculty Appointments Register looking for candidates who fit within the basic parameters. Simultaneously, we advertised the position nationally and locally. (15) My law school sends representatives to the annual AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference where we interview faculty candidates. In order to increase the number of African American faculty in the legal academy, the number of African Americans who have the characteristics law schools tend to look for must increase. (16)
Statistics available from the AALS reveal that the number of people of color in the academy has slowly increased over the past seven years. (17) The number, however, has remained relatively constant over the past two years. According to information gathered by the AALS for 2007-2008, of a total 10,673 law faculty and administration, 754 (7%) were African American and only 336 (3%) were Hispanic, while 7,991 (75%) were white) (8) Of the 5,678 full professors during this time frame, 4,569 (80.5%) were white, 345 (6.1%) were black, and 172 (3%) were Hispanic) (9)
Whether the "Obama Effect" can positively affect these statistics depends on how his presence impacts the number of people of color who enter and complete the education required to become a law professor. Statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau (20) for 2008 indicate that 87% of adults twenty-five and older had completed high school. Of those in this group, 29% had a bachelor's degree. Of white adults, 33% had a bachelor's degree or higher. Of black adults, 83% over the age of twenty-five had completed high school. Only 20% of those in the same age group had a bachelor's degree or higher. (21) In order to increase the numbers of blacks in the legal academy, these statistics must improve. To get into law school and to have the chance to become a law professor, one must have the foundation that will lead to success in college. Consequently, in order to get into the academy, a solid education from elementary school on up is essential. Thus, much depends on whether Obama's presidency leads children to stay in school and to do well in school.
President Obama can do at least three things to have an impact on how children perform in school. First, he can begin to improve the public school system. On the Organizing for America website, President Obama states "[w]e need to stop paying lip service to public education, and start holding communities, administrators, teachers, parents and students accountable." (22) He lists a three-part solution. First, the education children receive in grades K-12 must be improved. Next, steps must be taken to ensure that every child has the opportunity for post-high school education that will equip each child for the workforce. Finally, pre-kindergarten education must be improved. If these ideas become a reality, they will affect the number of people of color participating in all professions. President Obama has "talked the talk." Now, he...