Center for Digital Learning at SUNY Geneseo

What do we do now?

A mob of white men posing in front of the office of the black-owned Daily Record newspaper after burning it down, Wilmington, North Carolina, November 10, 1898 A mob of white men posing in front of the office of the black-owned Daily Record newspaper after burning it down, Wilmington, North Carolina, November 10, 1898.

Editor’s note: This post is one in a series by Geneseo faculty who in Intersession 2021 taught courses that either focused centrally on issues of racial justice or incorporated those issues via dedicated modules and interwoven content. To find all posts in this series, part of Geneseo’s project of becoming an antiracist college, look for the tag “intersession 2021”.

I have taught Politics of the Judicial Process five times while at Geneseo. To keep my interest, and hopefully student interest, I change the emphasis fairly often. When Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow came out, I used it. In the same class I employed Brandon Garrett’s Too Big To Jail. The juxtaposition of Black incarceration and all its negative effects on one hand, and white corporate America paying a fine out of corporate coffers on the other, made for an interesting learning experience for students.

More recently, I became interested in the intersection of law and psychiatry. I quickly add that I am neither a lawyer nor a psychiatrist. However, I just thought that the way the legal system treats mental illness is seriously flawed. I used Ellsworth Fersch’s Thinking About the Insanity Defense (a bit dated) and Kevin Davis’s The Brain Defense. Articles from both Penn and Vanderbilt are available as both schools are leaders in “neurolaw.”

Given all that has occurred over the last few years, including the murder of George Floyd, I thought it was necessary to incorporate law and race into my Fall 2020 course. I then compressed it into an intersession course. Frankly, at the time I wasn’t much aware of Geneseo’s effort on race. It just seemed to be the right time to employ race.

I began the course with an historic review of race in America. I used Jill Lepore’s “Long Blue Line” and David Blight’s “An American Pogrom.” Both are excellent works showing how policing itself began with slave control (Lepore) and how initial Black political power during the post-Civil War era was brutally put down.

Then I used two books: Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till and an edited work by Angela Davis entitled Policing the Black Man. I interspersed the books with two Supreme Court Cases (Terry v. Ohio and Whren v. US) and several articles. I recommend both works. The Tyson book had a huge impact on students as “southern justice” is emphatically exposed in all its brutality. The author argues convincingly that the Till murder directly galvanized the civil rights movement. It’s a nice connection to the more traditional civil rights movement and to Black Lives Matter. I did not have time, but I suggested to students that they watch filmmaker David Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. It puts an agonizing face on all the people involved.

The Davis book presents the legal structure itself and its impact on Black people. By utilizing eleven articles, the book allows me to fulfill my obligation to teach students the structure itself, while at the same time noting the impact of the structure on Black men. In addition, I use various articles not in the book to present systemic racism, the Black response (BLM), police blowback and possible reform.

I had no tests. Rather, the students had to write a literature review using both books, the articles, and cases. I like this approach for two reasons. It makes students read the assigned material and display a deep and sophisticated understanding (my instructions). And it preserves the integrity of the course. While I required 15 pages, all were over 20 and three reached 30. To me, this indicated strong student interest in the subject.

Keeping with the college’s initiative to become an antiracist campus, my course was able to raise and sustain student consciousness concerning the intersection of race and the law. This was my purpose in the first place. The Till book had an especially strong impact. Of course, with only eight in the class, it was much easier to achieve.

I learned much from the students. Four or five are deeply involved in BLM and human rights. They enlivened the class and informed me with their personal stories all connected to their involvement with race.

The problem with the subject matter is highlighted by a simple question that students raised toward the end of the course. I had heard it when I taught the course in the fall. “What do we do now?” This is difficult to answer in an academic setting where thought receives more emphasis than action, where listening to NPR is more important than being on the streets. But it needs to be answered and acted upon lest we lose the opportunity for change.

So, my course sustained the College’s efforts within an academic setting. It did seem to encourage and sustain some student action. This is good.