This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Unraveling the legal threads entangling race in America

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In law schools and ethnic studies centers across the nation, Renee Rodgers is a familiar name. She’s the one-time African American employee of American Airlines whose hair had a classic all-American look — except it fell to her shoulders in tight braids instead of single strands.

Rodgers has become a national symbol of gender- and race-based employment discrimination ever since a federal district court upheld the right of American Airlines in 1981 to prohibit her from wearing her hair in braids to conform to the company’s grooming standards for employees. In one of its many sweeping opinions, the court claimed that Rodgers’ fashionable hairdo was not the product of natural hair growth but an artifice unrelated to her cultural heritage.

For Devon W. Carbado, a professor in the School of Law who specializes in constitutional law, employment discrimination and critical race 
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Law Professor Devon W. Carbado. Photo by Ajay Singh.
theory, Rodgers’ case is as fascinating as it is bizarre, partly because it revolves around actress Bo Derek: Lawyers for American Airlines had argued that Rodgers changed her own hairstyle after becoming enamored of Derek’s braided hair in the 1979 Hollywood smash hit “10.” According to the court, there was no clear connection between African Americans and all-braided hairstyles.

The case, officially but inaccurately titled “Rogers v. American Airlines,” is one of 16 captivating essays in “Race Law Stories,” a book co-edited by Carbado, to highlight some of America’s most significant racial discrimination lawsuits spanning the nation’s multiracial spectrum, from Latinos, blacks and whites to Asian Americans and Native Americans. (The book’s other editor is Rachel F. Moran, a law professor at UC Berkeley.)

Carbado discussed some of those cases in a Feb. 26 lecture, also titled “Race Law Stories,” held in Haines Hall to mark the conclusion of Black History Month events organized by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

Published by Foundation Press, “Race Law Stories” is part of a broad series of law textbooks aimed at enhancing the understanding of appellate court opinions, which often lack the broader contexts within which cases are litigated. The landmark “Brown v. Board of Education” judgment in 1954, for example, is rife with issues of race that can’t be fully understood by reading just the judge’s opinion, Carbado explained.

The essays in the book are also important in understanding how the law is taught at UCLA. Its School of Law is the only one in the nation that has a program in critical race studies, pointed out Carbado, who was twice selected as the school’s “professor of the year” — by the classes of 2000 and 2006 — and was also a recipients of the campuswide 2007 Distinguished Teaching Awards.

While many race issues are related to constitutional law, the issues themselves are much too complex to be subsumed under — and studied through — constitutional law alone, said Carbado. Born and raised in Britain by Jamaican parents, Carbado is himself no stranger to racial prejudice, particularly racial profiling, which he managed to turn to his academic advantage: “My interactions with police have shaped my theoretical understanding of race,” he said, adding: “I always wind up saying that I became a black American before I became an American citizen.”

Given the far-reaching impacts that a string of Supreme Court opinions have had on the nation over the past two decades, “we need to step back and ask ourselves to what extent do we reframe some of the central questions that have been presented before the courts,” Carbado said, adding: “One concrete issue is racial preferences.”

In fact, all forms of racial consciousness, not just the issue of racial integration, are often misleadingly conflated with affirmative action, explained Carbado. For example, the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court verdict about the constitutionality of policies adopted by primary and secondary schools in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, to combat racial segregation wasn’t about race-based affirmative action, but rather racial “integration constructed as racial preferences,” he said.

Is affirmative action a racial preference? “That’s a fact in ways that we need to push back against,” said Carbado, adding: “It’s not to say that it goes without saying that affirmative action is not a racial preference, but rather that there ought to be a debate about it in public discourse. Yet media outlets, incuding NPR and the New York Times, characterize affirmative action as racial preference — as a matter of fact, not as a matter of argument or normative judgment.”

Carbado agreed that the United States has come “incredibly far” since its dreadful Jim Crow days — and certainly farther along than the United Kingdom. But as the recent fervor over Barack Obama’s presidential victory shows, there seems to be something of a national tendency to “fetishize symbols perhaps too much,” he said.

Before Obama entered the White House, “we had a set of demographics about incarceration, political disempowerment, health disparities, education of minorities, unemployment,” Carbado noted, adding that these remain with us after — and not withstanding — the fact of Obama’s election. “So it’s important that we recognize that the political ground has moved — but, in many ways, the old material conditions are still there,” he said.

Carbado urged advocates for justice to press on with the urgent task of racial advocacy, but to combine it with a keener vision of the future. “Obama’s ascendancy to the forefront of American politics wasn’t a moment that many of us could imagine as a possibility,” he said. “And because it wasn’t a moment that we could imagine, we have to think hard about our racial imagination.”
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