Like many of you, I have watched the events unfolding these past few weeks with grief and anger. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others are horrible, but I have unfortunately not found them shocking. “Shocked” connotes an element of surprise. But the civil rights historian in me knows that we have been here before: police violence against African Americans, unequal justice, unrest in the streets, frustration boiling over. As a nation, we have told ourselves stories that such incidents and images belong to a different era, an era long eclipsed by the civil rights movement and the declaration of victory over Jim Crow and the racial inequality and oppression that were its lynchpins.
My son has asked repeatedly over the past few days, “Why George Floyd? Why has this death been the one to catalyze this response and this newly heightened demand for action?” One answer might be found in the utter prostration of Mr. Floyd and the apparent casualness with which the police officer took his life. The officer’s posture suggests so little concern for the human life he was ending beneath him.
Another part of the answer, I think, can be found in the mounting evidence that the stories many of us tell ourselves about racial equality have never been entirely true, and that deaths like Mr. Floyd’s make it impossible for more and more Americans to accept those stories. Like the white supremacist rallies we faced here in Charlottesville three years ago, these events hold a mirror for us to examine the relationship between our past and our present. It is hard to like what we see.
More than three-quarters of a century ago, the fledging Civil Rights Section of the United States Department of Justice pledged to put the weight of the federal government toward protecting rights to “the safety and security of the person”—rights to be free from involuntary servitude, police brutality, and lynching. The American roots of the concept went back to the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Freedman’s Bureau Bill of the same year. The very first of the Reconstruction-era civil rights statutes guaranteed all citizens the same “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property” that whites enjoyed.
It grieves me that centuries later, African Americans still cannot count on the safety and security of their persons. Like so many, I am struck once again by how hard it is to create lasting and meaningful change, and how long it takes. These tragedies are compounded all the more by the fact that the equality sought by the civil rights movement is elusive not only in the context of criminal justice. Equality is also elusive in the statistics about the disparate impact of the current pandemic on African Americans, in the lives lost, the jobs on the front lines, the economic insecurity that preceded and exacerbates its consequences for communities of color. The inequalities so visible in this moment exist because deeper inequalities remain.
Above the entrance to our law school are the words, “That those alone may be servants of the law who labor with learning, courage, and devotion to preserve liberty and promote justice.” We have not always done so. This institution, like our nation, was born in contradiction—between the reality of slavery and the aspirations of democracy and service. We must continue to reckon with the reality of that birth—as well as the segregation and discrimination that followed—as we must continue to redefine what those founding aspirations mean for our own time. We bring those aspirations closer to reality by creating a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff. We do so by building a community that ensures the belonging, thriving, and success of every member. We do so in how we, as teachers, scholars, and students, advance justice in the world.
In the face of events that seem beyond our control, the words above our entrance remind me of the power of the law and the power of lawyers. These words are not self-fulfilling. They are hard fought and hard won. They require vigilance and continual renewal. The past shows us not only what we must overcome, but also how critical what we do here is to the pursuit of justice. Legal change happens all the time, in every community, every day, because of lawyers like those you are training to become and, in many ways, already are.
I know that current events affect us in different ways and that our responses to them do and will differ. I know as well that the strength of our community lies in our ability to empathize with and support one another. Despite our physical distance right now, I hope we will all take this opportunity to reach out, to seek help when needed, and to offer support to friends, classmates, and colleagues.
With hope that you and yours stay healthy and safe,
Dean, Arnold H. Leon Professor of Law and Professor of History
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.