Her voice was quivering, but she was still shouting. That’s what I remember most about the young woman in front of me. I could almost feel the sting of disrespect as she described her face being shoved against a brick wall by a police officer. I couldn’t help but relate to her — a graduate student in her 20s, pulling off the hipster look much better than I can. The difference between us was that she is black and I am not. That difference meant that she had spent her life in fear of law enforcement, treated like a criminal when she wasn’t one.
It was August, and I stood amongst the crowd gathered in support of the Ferguson protestors. In those moments, on the Boston Common, something changed for me. I listened to stories of countless individuals who had come up against the same, homogenizing force of institutionalized racism. I realized that the ‘racial justice’ that was an ‘area of interest’ for me was a matter of life or death, of resisting daily disrespect, for other people. Real people, standing in front of me. As a philosophy PhD student who studies justice, I have always been dissatisfied with the abstraction of my discipline. I have always wanted to do more. And that, in part, is why I decided to add a law degree to my studies.
It is easy to forget that reason in the midst of first year courses. Most of what law school students study is not social justice. It is law. Still, there are other students here who came to law school for similar reasons. Some want to be public defenders; others want to work for the ACLU. Others already are gearing up to spend their spring break volunteering with immigrants, the Innocence Project, and other public interest projects.
In the midst of studying for finals, BC Law students organized a ‘die-in’ in the law library in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter movement. Some faculty participated, and others stood by in support. In the grand scheme of things, it was small. Just a symbolic 6 minutes 35 seconds (a combination of the time Michael Brown’s body was left on the street and the length of the original video of Eric Garner’s death). But I saw my fellow classmates take time (during the most stressful part of the year) to come together for racial justice.
At a recent panel discussion “Race in the USA”, with BC faculty speakers from several disciplines and the law school’s own Dean Vincent Rougeau, some undergraduates and panelists asked if BC is doing enough for racial justice.
Remembering the young woman, claiming her right to full respect though her voice quivered, the answer to that question is no. But because of the actions of faculty and many of my fellow students, I have an active hope that we can and will do more.
Amelia Wirts is pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at Boston College. She has already spent four years working toward her PhD, focusing on political philosophy, moral theory, and philosophy of law. She intends to bring abstract theories of justice, obligation, and autonomy to the ground by understanding the ways that laws and public policies enable or undermine our political and moral lives. She is especially concerned with the gender-based and racial injustices imbedded in the legal system. You can email her at ameliawirts[at]gmail[dot]com if you are interested in pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at BC, or if you too are moved by the rational imperative to make our shared world a more just place.