Ashley Mitchell

This Bridge, This Back, This Baggage: Pleading Humanity Part I

This blog post is the first in a two-part post related to recent events taking place primarily in law schools and undergraduate institutions around the country. College, graduate, and professional students are creating and broadcasting campaigns aimed at exposing their everyday treatment as students of color at some of our most elite educational institutions. Take a look at what is happening at UCLA Law, here.

The following statement made in the linked video caught my attention: “I’m tired of having to plead my humanity, essentially to other students,” a UCLA law student stated in her on-camera appeal.

The phrase, “pleading my humanity,” has been a term of art that I have heard quite often throughout my law school experience, and in fact, more than ever in my life thus far. In my experience, it is often used to draw attention to a circumstance when a student inside of a particular social group attempts to explain to a person outside of that social group how a certain decision, action, or rule specifically undermines the human value and/or worth of someone who is also a member inside of that social group.

While law school should be a safe place to hold and discuss different perspectives, this is not always the reality. There are, in fact, times that I even wish that there existed some universal truths, such as that rape is certainly a criminal act. In fact, I thought that we, as an American society, were in total agreement about this until the political fracas some time ago (and that continues).

In any case, it is often challenging to be a witness to students pleading with other students about fair treatment, systemic privilege, and a humane society, only to be ignored, to be shot down with haste, or to encounter, what might one of the biggest offenders, a complete lack of engagement. In addition, I am often bothered by the competition between logic and reason and common sense and moral ideals; that is, as if a plea for humane treatment for a certain segment of the population is not logical or reasonable.

Watching students struggling to reconcile what they perceive as the logical answer and their conscience is often painful. For example: In my first year constitutional law course, the professor often asked particular members of the class whether a given case that we were studying was correctly decided. The day came where we discussed Plessey v. Ferguson. Inevitably, the professor asked a student sitting directly behind me whether Plessey was rightly decided. I was jarred when the words, “No,” did not immediately escape the student’s lips. In fact, my classmate’s hesitation felt like it lasted for minutes. While it may not have been minutes, the silence lasted long enough for my inherent instincts to kick in because apparently I had whipped my head around, shook my head feverishly and shaped my own lips to indicate, “no.”

No matter how much a legal education is aimed at reshaping our thinking, I am nearly certain that no one has ever been disbarred for pleading “the right thing.”

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