Race Discrimination Has No Place In A Classroom…Or a Law School

This past week, Georgetown Law School fired one of its adjunct professors, a lawyer, mediator, and veteran adjunct professor at the school for 20 years for making race-based stereotyping comments.

Here’s what happened: the adjunct professor, Sandra Sellers, and a colleague were talking at the end of their virtual class, which was still recording, about the evaluation of Black students.

In the video clip, Ms. Sellers said this:

You know what? I hate to say this. I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks — happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You know? You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.

Let that sink in for a moment. Maybe, read it again—out loud even.

A student shared the video online, while the University investigated this week.

(Though there was video, G-town claimed it wanted to discuss the matter for “context.”)

Under increasing pressure from students, alumni, and public outcry, Georgetown Law fired Ms. Sellers who, according to this article in The New York Times, had “intended to resign.”

Georgetown’s Termination of Ms. Sellers—Let’s Consider The Law

Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981) prohibits discrimination based on or because of an employee’s race. Similar to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as we have discussed concerning sexual harassment (here), harassment based on religion (here), and race-based harassment (here and here), to constitute a hostile work environment, first, comments and conduct must be based on a protected characteristic, such as race.

Second, the comments must be severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, offensive, or abusive—an “objective” test.

Finally, racially charged comments or conduct must be severe and pervasive to the point that the employee herself or himself considers it to be offensive and abusive.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive race-based jokes, slurs, comments, epithets or name calling (like the “n-word”); physical assaults or threats ; intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults, display of offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

But stereotyping based on race fits right in here too.

Title VII prohibits racial stereotypes in the workplace.

Let’s not forget Title VII’s prohibition against race-based stereotyping (or, of course, sex-based stereotyping).

As my employment law partner Rich Cohen sagely stated here, when discussing a workplace where one employee suffered from co-workers’ “pervasive pattern of disparaging racial comments,” such as “persistent references” to black employees as “you people,” “Black people are lazy,” and “I better watch my wallet around you[,]” stereotyping based on race violates Title VII.

Stereotyping is just as insidious as creating a hostile work environment, and Title VII

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the anti-discrimination laws, agrees and recognizes that discriminating against someone “because of the perception or belief that a person is a member of a particular racial…group whether or not that perception is correct” as a form of race discrimination.

Implicit Bias Rears Its Ugly Head

Implicit or unconscious bias has no place at work. Yet it is prevalent.

Implicit biases, are unintentional and unconscious judgements made based on pervasive stereotypes.

It is the natural human process of categorizing “like objects” together. Implicit bias studies have shown that most people show a strong preference for white people as opposed to Black people.

So how does this translate in a workplace when the “job” is to teach students how to practice law?

Well, way back when in 2018, the ABA Commission of Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association issued a report that all attorneys of color as well as white women reported that they have to go “above and beyond” to get the same recognition and respect as their colleagues and that they are held to higher standards than their col­leagues.

You can read all about these statistics here. Black men and women receive clear messages that they do not fit with people’s image of a lawyer. Black women are mistaken as secretaries at law firms and as nurses in hospitals when they are not. Black men are mistaken as janitors.

This can lead to a lack of diversity and inclusivity, and, sometimes, race discrimination.

Employer Takeaway

It is no wonder Georgetown Law fired Ms. Sellers.

Reputational damage aside, Title VII prohibits race-based harassment based on racial stereotypes. Training the next generation of lawyers requires that professors consider their students based on merit, not skin color.

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.