Black communities experience lasting “cultural trauma” from the lack of criminal convictions for police and vigilante violence, explains scholar Angela Onwuachi-Willig on the latest episode of “Common Law,” a podcast of the University of Virginia School of Law.

Onwuachi-Willig, dean of the Boston University School of Law, is an expert on critical race theory, employment discrimination and family law. She wrote on the topic of cultural trauma for Boston University’s The Record and in scholarly articles exploring the impact of the deaths of Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955, and Trayvon Martin, a teen who was killed in 2012, and the acquittal of their killers.

Cultural trauma occurs when a group experiences a “tragic, horrific event,” she explains; one that forever changes the group, and how the group sees itself and understands the world. “And then that group communicates that narrative to each other and to society.”

Martin’s death, which also launched the Black Lives Matter movement, was a seminal moment for her as well because her oldest son was 14 at the time.

“It felt like it could have been any of our children who were walking in a neighborhood and who were viewed as not belonging, and [having] somebody like George Zimmerman follow them home and assume all the worst things,” she says on the show, “and not think about what it looked like to the kid who knew that he had a right to be there to have a strange man following him.” 

Onwuachi-Willig says she was particularly interested in writing about how “you could have cultural trauma narratives emerge out of things that are really quite ordinary” because African Americans are “routinely marginalized and devalued.”

During the episode, she discusses how lawyers might help break the cycle of trauma, including through greater accountability for the police and with different policies on jury selection. (The episode was recorded before the Derek Chauvin verdict for the murder of George Floyd.)

Onwuachi-Willig is a co-founder of the Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project, a website hosted by the Association of American Law Schools that serves as a resource with curated content to help encourage antiracism. She and four other deans received the inaugural AALS Impact Award for the effort. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Onwuachi-Willig also discussed cultural trauma last summer during UVA Law’s National Faculty Workshop, “From Policing and Protest to Discrimination and Systemic Racism.”

Hosted by Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, “Common Law” is focusing this season on “Law and Equity.”

While the themes of the first two seasons were temporal — the first focused on “The Future of Law” and the second looked back at “When Law Changed the World” — this season looks across time at a variety of legal issues, asking what equity means and examining how it interacts with law.

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places you can listen to podcasts. The show is produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente.

You can follow the show on the website or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

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.

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