Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and you know, we tell it just like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show history matters. We examine the past as we think about and pivot to the future. And on this show, we are also thinking about histories of being denied, women being denied the positions that they have applied for, the pay that is owed to them. And these are histories that go back to colonialism and slavery and before. But in modern times, what do these concerns mean? And what does it mean to be left outside of the tent, where in fact, you’ve already purchased your ticket for entry.
And there are many examples that we can think about within the American context and broader of girls and women being denied opportunities, platforms, and even more and so I couldn’t be more pleased than to have on this episode with me Professor Tracey Meares. She is the Walton Hale Hamilton professor and a founding director of the Justice collaboratory at Yale Law School. Before joining the faculty at Yale, she was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. And you may have been familiar with her story of being denied the position of valedictorian when she was graduating from high school because of her race.
This is a story that is not unique to Professor Meares. But it is a powerful story that punches one right in the gut, and that demands that we reflect on what do these issues mean, in contemporary times, what does it mean when you’ve been denied an opportunity that was yours? What are the setbacks for women, when that happens? How do we move ahead in light of social, political and other forces that seek to hold women back? And what does this mean, not just for women? What does it mean for girls? What does it mean for other populations of people who are denied simply because of who they are? Being LGBTQ, having a disability, what more? These are really important issues for our time, so I couldn’t be more pleased than for Professor Meares to share her story—which on one hand, has its own inspirations in terms of the fabulous person that she is and the very distinguished position that she holds. And yet it’s also heartbreaking too, to listen to her story and to know that it is a story that has been repeated time and again. I’m just so grateful that she joined us for our “On the Issues” podcast. So sit back and take a listen.
00:00:02 Michele Goodwin:
Thank you so much for joining us today for our On the Issues platform, Professor Meares. I want to start off with just asking you a question about the piece that came out in the Washington Post. It was a reflection on what happened to you when you were in high school. Can you unpack for our listeners about becoming the valedictorian that was denied.
00:00:33 Tracey Meares:
Yes. Before I gear up for that story first, I want to thank you for inviting me to come and share my story. I always enjoy doing work with you, Professor Goodwin. It’s a rare opportunity to be able to talk with you in this space rather than the usual sort of heavy law materials we usually cover, although this one’s kind of heavy, at least for me.
00:00:58 Michele Goodwin:
Yeah. It is.
00:01:01 Tracey Meares:
So what happened or at least the way I understood what was happening when I was 17 in 1984 was that I had the highest grade point average by weight. So the film documents how that works. It’s not just that you get an A or a B in a class. It depends on what kind of class you take. When I was in high school I had three APs, I think. I just relearned exactly how many I had because in the events that happened after, which I’m sure we’ll get to, I actually saw my official transcript, which I hadn’t seen in…since 1983. I don’t think even think I ever saw the final transcript. It just wasn’t relevant.
In any case, I had the highest grade point average by a lot. It wasn’t even close. I expected the school officials to say to me, because I had been talking to my school counselor about what happens if you’re named valedictorian, to talk to me about what would be happening at graduation, the sort of address I would be giving. It kind of never happened and so it was confusing. Then in that spring I learned that the principal was sort of taking another…I’m going to call her a girl because that’s how I thought of myself then at 17.
Another girl who was salutatorian by grade point average around to these events in Springfield, Illinois where I’m from saying that she was…it wasn’t clear whether they were saying she was the valedictorian but the top student. So, I told my mom. My mom spurred into action. There was a lot of behind the scenes things that they describe actually in the documentary. But as it turned out, I was actually invited to give the address that the valedictorian gives at the graduation, however I was not named valedictorian officially in any way. She was not named salutatorian, by the way. We were both designated as top students and every official newspaper article discussing our achievements, her picture always came first, even though her last name begins with an R and my last name begins with an M.
She was always listed first so it wasn’t even that they did a thing where her picture’s first, my picture’s second but I’m first. It wasn’t even like that. It was first, first and then Springfield High School names top students. The clear implication of course is that there’s a group and she’s first. So, how did I feel about that I think you asked me. I felt really confused. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I knew that at least the year before they had named a valedictorian because I knew who the person was. It was my understanding that they had for years before that.
In fact, Roger Smith, who you might know, Michele. I learned in this whole incident that Roger is from Springfield, Illinois and he was named valedictorian in 1971, and his brother was valedictorian. His name is Chris I think, a couple of years later. So we know there’s a long practice of this, but for whatever reason the year I was set to be valedictorian they decided to change the practice.
00:04:58 Michele Goodwin:
And change the rules, right? To move the goalpost. This is after you worked so hard. I mean it’s not as if…for some people things do come easy, but I doubt that this wasn’t also an investment on your part in terms of hard work. I’m wondering then what that message sends to those who do that kind of hard work but the goalposts move. You mentioned that you hadn’t seen your transcript until recently, and this brings up all of that. It’s kind of like the confirmation of what was already in your gut.
00:05:36 Tracey Meares:
Yeah. It was really interesting to see it. So freshman year, I think I’m getting these numbers right. It might not be exactly right. Just trying to recall. Freshman year, I ended the year number two. Sophomore year I ended the year number one. Junior year, I ended the year number five and that was the year that I was really heavily invested in doing a bunch of other things. So, it wasn’t just that I worked really hard.
00:06:12 Michele Goodwin:
You were in clubs and sports and all of that.
00:06:13 Tracey Meares:
I was a varsity athlete. I was a cheerleader. I did all the things.
00:06:19 Michele Goodwin:
On the field and also cheering.
00:06:22 Tracey Meares:
All the things.
00:06:25 Michele Goodwin:
00:06:26 Tracey Meares:
So first semester senior year I had all of these APs. I had AP physics, chemistry. I had AP French. I had AP history. I had a lot of them. I got all As first semester. So, I know that’s the last time I looked at my grades that semester. So I knew there was no way this woman could catch me because she wasn’t in any of my classes. That’s sort of the key. She may have gotten all As second semester or even first semester. I don’t know. But she was not in any of my classes and those were the only AP classes. So the weights are the weights.
00:07:10 Michele Goodwin:
Right. We’re talking about a story that’s not 1942. It’s not 1962. You’re talking about an experience that’s in the 1980s, and it is significant because it’s those experiences that further shape one. Every little bit counts. We know this is the case because there are parents that spend tens of thousands of dollars each year just so their kid even not…with the prospect of their kids becoming valedictorian. I mean it’s just the prospect of having a certain GPA that leads them to the next stage and the next stage. So there is a pivotal stage in which you’re denied. I wonder if you ever think about what that meant over the terms of your career. Now, some people will say, look, Professor Tracey Meares is at Yale. She was at the University of Chicago. She’s been a pioneer and has been knocking down walls and barriers her entire life. But even so.
00:08:18 Tracey Meares:
Yeah. There’s a lot there, Michele. I mean I had the opportunity in the last month since my sister decided to make this film. I want to repeat that. My sister decided to make this film. It was important to my sister to do this. I mention that because for me it was an incredibly painful period. It was confusing. I had always…
00:08:48 Michele Goodwin:
I feel pain right now just in this conversation. Feeling and thinking of you in that time and even in the present. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, but I understand why your sister would do that. Because I have a visceral response right now to just knowing that you had that experience.
00:09:11 Tracey Meares:
So, you know, I’m a kid, right. I’m a kid who had understood that I was playing by the rules. I was doing well. I was well-liked by my classmates. I actually liked high school. It doesn’t change my experience of high school. I hold up, at least at that time, Springfield High School as like a paragon of public education that was 20 years after integration. They were doing it where people were bussed from all over and such. My teachers liked me. Sorry.
So, to have that happen with the administration I was like I don’t understand what this is about. My parents were both trying to advocate for me. This is the part as a parent I find heartbreaking, but also protecting my two sisters who were coming after me. So, my middle sister, who is a medical doctor in Springfield, Illinois, the one who made the film. She was a freshman, a ninth grader first year when I was a senior. My youngest sister, who has her PhD in education works for the Peace Corps. She was, I think, in sixth or seventh grade. They were both coming to Springfield, so my parents didn’t want to cause a kind of thing where my sisters would be retaliated against. So at the time I was like I’m doing this. I’m getting out. Whatever. I never really went back. I didn’t go there in the summers. Most people would go back home in the summers. I didn’t. I went straight to law school, as you mentioned at the University of Chicago after college. I never went home in the summer. I always lived in Chicago.
Then once I graduated from the University of Chicago, I lived in Chicago. So, I didn’t go back. I sort of ______ 00:11:33 off that part of my life, that chapter of my life and went forward and did all the things. So when people ask me, were you motivated to do these things out of some sense of justice or injustice, maybe. Maybe subconsciously. I can tell you it was not a thing that I consciously thought about. In fact, it wasn’t until this experience realizing how much I had lost, all these friends who still lived in Springfield because most people don’t move away. They all came to the film, and these were people that I really liked and I lost touch with.
All of the relationships that I’d been denied and had been denied to those people for almost 40 years because of these people’s decision to not claim me. This is the last thing I’ll say. I think the thing that was hardest for me to understand was why over the years when I have achieved so much. You don’t want to be full of that kind of hubris, but I’ve achieved a lot. It was perplexing to me that a place like Springfield, Illinois would not want to claim me as their own.
00:13:15 Michele Goodwin:
It’s perplexing to me as well and I’m sure perplexing to our listeners. I’m going to venture a guess though that you’re not alone in having been denied based on your accomplishments, sort of denied an honorific position and at such a pivotal time in one’s life. I’m wondering then what this can do to people. Clearly, you moved on but at the same time there’s a way in which you didn’t because as you mentioned you were also denied these relationships. It meant that because you were not centered, as you deserve to be, you were not embraced as you deserved to be that you didn’t go back. You didn’t go back during college during summers. You didn’t go back during times in law school. That also seems in its own way, too, that it’s not just friends but it’s also family as well that then doesn’t get the chance to be with you in that kind of way as well.
00:14:29 Tracey Meares:
Yeah. I want to be clear. I would never not go visit my family. My family is my family, but it was always about my family and the times that I did go back sort of publicly, most recently there’s an organization called Frontiers International, which is like a service organization for black men that my grandfather was in and my father was for a time. They wear these very distinctive, bold blazers. Their big fundraiser is a Martin Luther King breakfast that’s attended by hundreds of people. The senator comes, Senator Durbin. So, I was invited to give the MLK lecture. I think it was the January before COVID. I want to say it’s 2019.
You might be able to see in the corner in the photo the yellow. That’s one of the men wearing that jacket. That’s a photo of me that was in the paper. That was an important homecoming for me because I was embraced by my community. That was coming home, doing this for my grandparents, but it was the kind of thing though, Michele, that I had to think about because it’s also a kind of Springfield thing. Senator Durbin was there at the front center table with my parents.
So, yeah, it’s been a lot. As you said, I’m not the only one. I mean after the news of this came out I’ve gotten all kinds of emails from people. This happened to me, too. This happened. I think even in the paper there was the reporter who wrote one of the articles from Springfield, The Illinois Times, told me about an incident that happened. He told me about an incident that happened in Galveston, Texas to a young black woman in 1994. So he did an article about me and told me about this thing that he reported on in 1994. I think it’s important for people to understand the dynamics under which this happens. So just to shift…
00:17:11 Michele Goodwin:
Yeah. Let’s talk about that. What are the dynamics under which something like this happens because that’s a decade after your experience and when I think about it, and you mentioned being a parent and what this means. We’re both parents, and I think about the experiences of my daughter, which I’ve written about and having to be vigilant all along the way. She was first in her class as well but the impediments along the way. I remember just when she was coming into the 8th grade and being told by a teacher in front of the person who was supposed to be shepherding her, a young white girl, to this new school that she must be mistaken that she’s not intended to be in his class. He’s holding a clipboard and my daughter says, no, I’m sure that my name is on your clipboard. I’m supposed to be in this class. He says, this is advanced math and this is for very smart people. She says my name is…she shares her name and I’m sure my name is on the list.
Then he says are you sure that this is the class that’s supposed to be for you. Then the kind of telltale sign, which is very Minnesota. We were in Minnesota at the time. Was to ask her did she live in a house or an apartment. All these various things that are just completely irrelevant. She was first in her class that year, first in class when she left high school. Again, these impediments along the way that of course can be very demeaning and very destabilizing and are meant to shame and also embarrass in some instances.
00:19:05 Tracey Meares:
Correct. Here’s the thing that I think so many people don’t understand. Maybe this is part of the reason why I study what I study. I do a lot of work on how to think about how people come to conclusions about the fairness of legal authorities. Those authorities don’t have to be legal authorities. I’m a law professor. That’s what I do but it applies to teachers and it applies to people in private settings. Your managers in a business context, how people think about that. It’s important for people to be treated with dignity and respect. When decisions are made, we look for indicia of neutrality and factuality and transparency. None of which happened in my situation. I’m getting to that.
And we also want to be able to trust that the motives of the person that we’re dealing with are benevolent. So all of these things matter in this context. So, when you are dealing with that kind of situation, and I tell this story, people are like she was named valedictorian instead of you. I’m like, no, that’s not how it happened. It’s always more subtle than that. Consistent with the story that you just told, more subtle. It wasn’t that she was valedictorian and I was salutatorian. It was there were just top students now even though there had been very clear signals of number one and number two before that. That kind of changing the rules allows people to say, well, there could be other reasons. There are lots of ways to be a top student.
Maybe it should just be the people with the highest grade point average. To which I say, yeah, but I was this. I was this. I was this. So maybe try, well, maybe it’s important to just give everybody a trophy now. Well, okay, if that’s true then why have top student? Why do I tell that part of the story? Because social psychologists tell us that they explore a dynamic called attribution ambiguity. From my perspective as the person that’s having this happen to me and people are giving these other reasons I start thinking to myself, oh, maybe it’s not what it seems like to me. It’s very hot here today, so I think that’s why you’re hearing…maybe it’s not what it seems like it is to me. Maybe there is some other reasons. Maybe I’m wrong and it kind of makes you feel…
00:22:09 Michele Goodwin:
Well, you begin to sort of question yourself, exactly. And what these patterns mean over time in terms of the double-guessing yourself whereas someone else in your position doesn’t have to double-guess. I mean not only does that person who’s not you as a young, black girl who works as hard as…for the person who’s not you, that person gets to be part of an American narrative that’s affirming and reaffirming all the time that this is what excellence looks like. And here you are and for other girls and women, especially women and girls of color, who have a story to tell, who have something to demonstrate in terms of excellence. When it gets denied then that’s a story that you see they just never can really make it. They never just really…they come close but they never really make it.
Then because there is all of the stereotypes around black people that have existed for centuries in this country of being lazy, not working hard, etcetera. Then there is the kind of mythology of well we give this special honor not because that person earned it, not because they earned the grade but we’re going to just do the kind of make her top student because she as cheerleader and she played on some sports and she worked hard in some classes because otherwise it is the sort of we always have a valedictorian but we can’t, and we’re doing this actually to do a favor for her so that she’s not embarrassed. But we get to give this kind of token to satisfy some members of the black community here or to satisfy this black girl who really didn’t achieve it, but we’re going to just call her a top student.
00:24:04 Tracey Meares:
Right. Or didn’t achieve what we’ve always said was the top thing. I will say, that whole dynamic also feeds into the experience that your daughter had, because when those stereotypes get reified, is it surprising at all that your daughter’s teacher said the thing that he said? In his mind, I am quite certain he is not telling himself that he’s doing this deliberately. In his mind, he’s telling himself he’s doing it for her own good. He’s trying to be fair. He’s trying to make sure she has a good experience. I’m sure that’s the story he’s telling himself in his mind because that’s the way these stereotypes create the dynamic such that it’s probably the case that the principal of my school, who I believe is responsible for all of this, told himself it’s good that we change the rules to do this so more people can have a chance.
There’s another stereotype that’s at play here, too, that I want to bring up and that is it’s the flipside of people looking for all sorts of other explanations. Why do they do that? Because for many white people today it is an absolutely horrific thing to be called a racist or to be said that you’ve engaged in racial discrimination. Even on my own faculty I had somebody say that in another context that I won’t describe here. But my colleague Phillip ______ 00:25:54 caused that fear of being called a racist often by white people a kind of stereotype threat. That they will kind of fall over themselves to make sure that that is not a thing that that is an attribution that can be given to them.
Phillip ______ 00:26:20 shows in the policing space that police officers who fear being called racist actually end up engaging in more exercises of excessive force against individuals that they deal with, rather than less. Just think about that. You put all of these things together, and we have a pretty toxic mix. We have the kid who is questioning themselves because of attribution ambiguity. We’ve got the people who are engaging in stereotypic behavior, fearful of being deemed racist, and then you have everybody else around not actually confronting, dealing with it, addressing it because of the ways in which all of these things work together.
00:27:12 Michele Goodwin:
That’s right. This is such a rich conversation, and I’m so grateful to you. I’m grateful to your sister as well really because this is part of a story that is so deep and so long. For example, when you were not taken to the various places and showcased as this is the top student in this school, what that meant in terms of an opportunity denied for others within that community to see that, yes, this is possible. This is what working hard and excellence looks like, too, to dispel then those stereotypes that get so built in across spaces. In so many ways, it only reified the stereotypes, right. So you were denied the honor of being valedictorian. You were also denied the opportunity to go about and to be featured really as the person who really had accomplished so much within the space of the environment and community that you were living in. Then those who were in those spaces as well were denied the opportunity to see and to celebrate that.
That, to me, is deeply disconcerting because we are on a multiple generations path and journey in this country with dispelling these stereotypes. I’ll be honest with you, Tracey, one of the things that I started doing when my daughter was very young, because of what I saw in my prior work in education and because I saw what happened to her. It was actually before the 8th grade that I began actually making a book every year that I would share with her teachers in the school. This is what she looks like. Here are her report cards. This is her in a tutu. This is her repelling down some hill because her dad did mountain climbing and whatnot, and she’d do that with him. This is what she looks like in ballet, and this is what she looks like with mix-matched socks on sitting in a park by a pond. Just so that her teachers could see as a little black girl, here’s the full expression of what she is. When she comes into the classroom, please see her. That’s all I want you to do is see her for who she is and to not stereotype her into something else.
I had to do that every year. In fact, in the backdrop of that 8th grade experience, one of the school administrators said, and we showed him the book. He saw the book. No parent should have to do that, but when you think about the experiences of children of color growing up, they’ll see more representations of pandas and bears and white children in the halls of their schools and in the classrooms than they will of anybody who looks like them. That’s something that just simply gets reified over and over.
00:30:10 Tracey Meares:
I just have goosebumps hearing the story about a book. Wow. I just need a minute to think about that. That’s ridiculous. I’m sorry. So yeah. Because I left, I don’t really know what happened in Springfield after I left. So, I learned watching this documentary that my sister and her friend Maria Ansley made, that there have been…since I left in 1984, I believe there have been five black valedictorians in the entire school district since I left. So there’s three high schools, three big high schools, each school I think has…I don’t even want to say how many students. When I graduated there were about 300 and Gen X is on the small side. I think it may have gotten bigger since, but also there’s been a lot of white flight in Springfield.
So, the teeny-tiny little high schools that were teeny-tiny when I lived in Springfield and that as students in the big public high schools in Springfield, we didn’t take seriously these schools are huge now. I couldn’t even imagine going to one of those schools. They’re well-populated. That’s another story. Springfield has become even more unequal than it was when I lived there in 1984.
So, there have been these five kids. I don’t know what their experience was. I don’t know them really at all. I think only one of them is from Springfield. There were a couple from Landfair, which is sort of on the other side of town. Those details are not readily accessible to me, but still just five. My sister, interestingly, I have two sisters, as I mentioned. My middle sister, who’s a doctor, shares my last name. My youngest sister does not. Her last name is Blackwell, and she was just telling me that when she went to high school she showed up and there were people who looked at her schedule and they were like this is not the right schedule. You shouldn’t be in this class. They put her in the other English class because her last name was different and we don’t all look the same. We have different dads, so she wasn’t recognizably my sister. Once again, my mom had to do the thing.
00:33:16 Michele Goodwin:
There’s this thing about black women having to do the thing of having to go up to school. There is the thing. That is exactly it.
00:33:28 Tracey Meares:
Yeah. This is a whole other topic, right. When people have the talk about the talk but this is a thing. I mean another story, this is related to the valedictorian but not quite. When I was seven years old living in Champaign at the time. That’s where I was born. There was a Brownie meeting. I don’t remember if that was in the Washington Post or is in one of the stories. But I went to a magnet grammar school for the University of Illinois, so everybody was bussed from everywhere to this school.
So on the day of our first Brownie meeting, I get on the bus to go to the neighborhood where it was being hosted. It was a little white girl and her mom and when I showed up she told me that I couldn’t come in. It was the same kind of you don’t belong here thing. Made me sit on her front stoop until my mom came to pick me up. My mom shows up and she’s like what the heck is happening? So what does my mom do? She does the thing. The thing was that she and another black mom, the only other black girl in our class, got together, talked to another mom who’s white. I still remember her name. Mrs. McDonald, and Mrs. McDonald said, okay, I’m going to host a Brownie troop. So, she setup a rival Brownie troop and everybody ended up at this other Brownie troop. Seven-year-old me was kind of like, oh, okay, and I went on. But it’s only as an adult when I was 20 or 30 where I was like, oh, wait.
00:35:23 Michele Goodwin:
You come back to process those experiences and with moms having to do the thing and really the journey that you’re talking about and that we’re talking about together is there can be the very pivotal denied but there are also instances along the way of that journey for young black girls, girls of color. It could be just girls generally where there is the experience of being denied. Those mount and you find ways to be resilient and the moms do the thing. Black moms do the thing. They go to the schools. They work those things out to try to clear the path, but what’s a whole lot of work and that’s a whole lot to have to hold inside until that space where we’re far enough along where we can breathe and breathe it out because we finally arrived after all of those hurdles and obstacles that should never have been there to begin with.
I want to begin our wrap up, but I could spend hours talking with you about this. I do think that hours long need to be spent on this because for some children whose parents want to be there but can’t, who experience…I mean it’s just really heartbreaking. I imagine that you might have also been one to share with your mom like, hey, I also saw this other thing happening. My daughter would do that to me and I’d go up to the school about that because even if it didn’t happen to be my daughter, that kind of injustice happening to another child, also something alarming.
00:37:05 Tracey Meares:
Yes. So much. I mean my daughter went to…all my kids but in particular the one I’m talking about now, who just graduated from high school. Went to a pretty fancy boarding school in Massachusetts. She wanted to go because it was all girls. She never had much stuff herself. As you said, she would explain to me the way this boarding school worked was that there were day students and boarding students. The day students came from the neighborhood. They were almost all white and privileged. A lot of the girls who were boarding came either from international and they were either international or from all over the country but black and brown, from New York and Atlanta, Detroit, and so on. Those were my daughter’s friends. They also often got a lot of scholarship.
My daughter would tell me about things that would happen, and I would do the thing for them. I’d call them up. It’s just like this isn’t happening and because we paid full freight and the school knew it but also because I have a voice and I know how to use it, I could always just sort of quote chapter and verse about things that they were doing. You’re right, it’s a lot of work and the work can really build up to a point where I don’t know. You said you can finally breathe. Sometimes I wonder. I mean in this whole experience I had friends of mine, close, dear friends. So we’ll start in the present and move back a little bit.
My dearest friends at Yale, and I’ve been here for about 15 years, so that’s the longest period I could know someone. Most of them is less than this. People who I consider my family and they, you never told us that. I said, yeah, I don’t talk about it. Then my friends from law school, you never told us this. I was like, wow, really? But then my college roommates, I mean these are women I have been friends with since I was 18 years old. One of my college roommates said to me, Trace, how could I not know this? I thought, wow, how could you not know this? I never talked about it.
So, it’s been really a lot to process. I’m still processing it. I still am. It’s going to take a while. I do think that it is important for the school to do what they did. They said it in the Washington Post article that they gave me the award 38 years later. I made sure that it was a real award, something you said earlier. I was like is this real? She’s like, yes, it’s a real Josten medal. I said, no, no. Is it real. Do you give this to everyone? Because if you don’t I am not accepting it in front of the 400 people who are sitting here. She said, no, since I have been superintendent, I give it to everyone. Those kinds of moments are important for those institutions to engage in regardless of how I feel about it. Knowledge of that means that you and me as moms will feel less likely that we have to do the thing, but as far as me exhaling, I don’t know. I have a few years of processing of this one, I think.
00:41:09 Michele Goodwin:
I appreciate that. I really do. I’m glad that you said that because I think that there’re ways in which people can look at a title, you’re the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law and the Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School and could see that and say that, look, with such a distinguished title, endowed chair, teaching at one of the most elite institutions not just in the United States but in the entire world. What in the world is there to process? But the reality is that these kinds of denials, these kinds of stings because of so much that they represent, it’s not just a matter of being on stage for that one moment. These are ways in which they cut away and take away at the soul. There are ways in which one of the things that you mentioned, which I think about a lot is belonging. We see the ways in which black people have come to suffer in the last century and today even, right. Do you belong?
Trayvon Martin is a story of do you belong. Sandra Bland is a story of do you belong? Why are you here? Why are you on this road? Why are you on this street? When we think about the burning down of prominent black communities from Oklahoma to Florida and places in between. It’s about do you belong. I think about, very recently, the stories being lifted up in California about Bruce’s Beach, which is now considered Manhattan Beach. Was the story of black people buying property, having a hotel, and saying we will invest here and having their property literally stolen away from them by government and being chipped away.
These stories about belonging. It is so much deeper, so I am happy…I appreciate, I will say, how difficult it can be, and I understand it personally and professionally, too.
00:43:24 Tracey Meares:
Yeah. I almost hate to respond because that was such an important moment that I hope listeners can appreciate, but let me just say his about the processing. It’s that we are who are at particular points of time. When I was 17, I was a young, impressionable kid, who thought if I play by the rules that’s all that needed to be done. This thing happens, which makes you feel incredibly vulnerable, incredibly vulnerable. So when my sister wanted me to come back and be there for the premiere of the documentary I was nervous about it. Not only because I didn’t know exactly what was going to be in the film. I ended up seeing it before so I could be prepared, but also because I didn’t want to meet that girl.
I knew that in watching this I would have to experience all of those things that I experienced then because the feelings that I had then I had because of who I was then. Tracey now, Walton Hale Hamilton Professor, if anything like that happens now I do the thing. I have an incredible…
00:44:49 Michele Goodwin:
And you do, do the thing. You do.
00:44:51 Tracey Meares:
I have an incredible suit of armor. I have an incredible suit of armor. I have made it my business in every context I have been in since the beginning of my career, which includes that run up from there to be, for lack of a better way of putting it, I’m going to out-white any ______ 00:45:18 that’s a white man in the room. That’s what I do, but I didn’t always do that. That’s the processing. I left her behind, Michele. I left her behind, and all those people and all those relationships.
So the thing that I have to do now is to figure out how to embrace her while still being myself and wondering if I will still be myself if I really embrace her, the self that I know, right, who can do all the things. So that’s the task. That’s a lot.
00:46:05 Michele Goodwin:
That is a lot, and I appreciate the intimacy of allowing me to hear that and also broadly our listeners to be able to hear that and giving some legitimacy to that kind of journey. That journey is not something that’s instant. It’s not necessarily reconciled after an institution says oh, mea culpa. We recognize our mistake. That’s not what ends it for us. There’s still the scars that can remain and the journey that needs to be done.
On each of our episodes, we ask our guest to help us think through a silver lining. When I think about who will be listening to this episode, we have diverse listenership all around the world. I’m thinking that there are lots of parents, lots of moms who are thinking about this, who’ve had to put on the armor so that they can be ready to do the thing or who are thinking about oh, my gosh. These are things I’ve got to think about or the girls who are thinking about something happened do them and have not yet found their voice with how to articulate it. What do you think is the silver lining going forward or the message that you would give to another Tracey who might be wondering, I think something’s wrong here. What do I do?
00:47:37 Tracey Meares:
Well, I mean if it was literally another Tracey, that girl would go tell her parents. So I spoke of the armor, but I think what has allowed me to be who I am with that armor and do all of these things in the context of a lot of hurdles that just being one of them is because there was never a single moment in my life where I did not understand that I was loved completely and unconditionally, completely and unconditionally. My parents were always my advocates, and my grandparents, too. There was a community. Our church community, so that’s part of the confusion, you know, that you have when you have that kind of support staff…look how I’m translating it into my…
00:48:40 Michele Goodwin:
This Freudian slip. I get it. People just know our other worlds other than the podcast, as you know. Professor Meares and I have this other identity.
00:48:54 Tracey Meares:
But underneath the armor I was always surrounded by this big, fluffy blanket. The fluffy blanket and that’s all I had when I was 17 was a fluffy blanket. Now I have the other things. So that’s the first thing I guess I would say to that girl. You’re loved and nobody can take that away from you ever. Nobody has, whatever else has happened.
I think the second thing I would say generally is just to reiterate something that I said, for people who are leaders of institutions, regardless of how the person that was denied or you literally denied, you have an important opportunity to make things or attempt to redress wrongs. You can do that regardless of what that person’s response is. The obligation…I call it an obligation but certainly the opportunity remains the same. So take it because it’s not just about that girl. It is about, as you said, the girls coming behind her. It’s about the community watching, not just the communities that are denied but the other communities, the Rotary Clubs who never…all of that, all of that.
Then I guess the third point, because it’s always good to make points in threes, is that we need to talk about this stuff. I mean my sister had a Facebook page called No Title for Tracey, which is about this documentary. Where she’s always pointing out things for conversations, hard conversation, racism still exists. It’s all these hash tags. Racism still exists, have the conversation and so on because people need to understand all the structures that we described earlier. It’s very easy to think that things are done and over because of the ways in which there is not what we often call in our world overt discrimination or overt bias. Until you understand the mechanisms and how these things work and talk about them and everybody understands their role, even if they’re not specifically the person who’s making the decision to deny, but you might be the person who doesn’t say a thing. You might be the person who’s not on the next school committee that makes the decision forward looking to make sure that what happened to your daughter didn’t ______ 00:51:45. It’s not going to end. It’s just not.
00:51:52 Michele Goodwin:
Professor Tracey Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. I want to thank you for joining me for this episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin as we focused on Denied. Thank you, Tracey.
00:52:10 Tracey Meares: